Marshmallow Mind Games

Marshmallow Mind Games


Every month Entrepreneur showcases incredibly successful business owners. We often find a common thread of them having a great idea, struggling for a good few years to get the business off the ground, and then enjoying the great rewards of business success. There’s a term for this: Delayed gratification.

For the love of marshmallows

The most famous experiment into delayed gratification originated in the late 60s and was the Stanford marshmallow experiment by Walter Mischel.

In the experiment, young children were offered a choice between immediately eating a single marshmallow in front of them, or waiting a few minutes and being rewarded with two marshmallows when the experimenter returned. Many children failed to resist the temptation, but some did.

In follow-up studies, researchers found that kids able to delay their gratification for the rewards showed enormous differences as they grew older.

They performed better at school, got into Ivy League universities, they rarely got into trouble, were self-confident and determined, but most importantly they exhibited a time perspective that many great entrepreneurs have – they are future-focused rather than present-focused.

Time perspective unpacked 

Time perspective, as described by psychologist Phillip Zimbardo, is the study of how people divide the flow of human experience into time categories. It’s something that’s done automatically and non-consciously and people can actually find themselves giving bias to one.

Why this is important to know is that the time categories you tend to fall into determine the decisions you make. The good news is that you can learn to balance your time perspectives better once you know where you fall. Take a look at these categories and their influence on decisions:


  • These people are influenced by the immediate situation or stimulation, what they’re feeling, and what other people are doing.
  • These people are focused on the now.
  • They can be positively focused resulting in hedonistic pleasure-seeking and living for the now, or negatively focused, feeling trapped, depressed and anxious in the present, unable to change the future so ‘what’s the point?’


  • For these individuals, the present is irrelevant. Their decisions are based on past memories of “What is this situation like that I’ve experienced in the past?”
  • These people are focused on what once was.
  • Positive past focus lies in nostalgia, family and roots, with a ‘rather safe than sorry’ philosophy, while a negative past focus results in feelings of bitterness and regret about past experiences which hampers personal development.


  • This is the delayed-gratification camp. They think about the future and anticipated consequences.
  • Their focus is on what will be.
  • Positive future-oriented people set goals and ‘to-do’ lists, and have a nagging sense of urgency, while negative future-oriented individuals believe things will only get better after time passes, sometimes even only in the afterlife.

The ideal mix

For psychologists, there is an ideal weighting of time perspectives and it looks like this: High past-positive perspective, which gives you roots, a connection to your family, identity and inner-self; moderately high future-positive perspective, which gives you wings to soar and meet new challenges; and moderate present-hedonism, which allows you to enjoy and explore places, people, yourself, and life in general.

Waiting for marshmallows

While many stories of business success are based on delayed gratification, any time perspective in excess has more negative outcomes than positive. What do future-focused individuals sacrifice for their success?

Quite simply, time – friend time, fun time, family time, personal indulgence, hobbies, sleep, health. They live for work, achievement and control. Sound familiar?

The key to balancing time perspectives is to take regret (or negative past focus) and use it to fuel motivation. Immersing yourself in rewarding activities that demand your full attention can give more weight to present-hedonism as well as creating good memories for positive past focus.

Believe you can improve your future through your own constructive actions, and you will gain a sense of empowerment and control. A rewarding future begins with believing in a positive future.

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Tracy Lee Nicol
Tracy-Lee Nicol is an experienced business writer and magazine editor. She was awarded a Masters degree with distinction from Rhodes university in 2010, and in the time since has honed her business acumen and writing skills profiling some of South Africa's most successful entrepreneurs, CEOs, franchisees and franchisors.Find her on Google+.