Would You Pass the Marshmallow Test?

The experiment is simple.  Leave a five year-old in a room with a marshmallow sitting on the table in front of him or her, with the following instructions: “I’m going to leave the room for fifteen minutes.  If you eat the marshmallow while I’m gone, that’s the only marshmallow you’ll get.  If you can wait the whole fifteen minutes, and don’t eat the marshmallow until I get back, you’ll get a second marshmallow.”  While this sounds quaint, and perhaps even a little trite, this experiment was indeed run in a highly scientific manner by Stanford professor Walter Mischel in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  The focus of the experiment, of course, is to measure individual children’s ability to employ delayed gratification, and the long-term follow up was to see how predictive their behavior was of long-term success in life.  The results were startling.

A person’s five year-old response to the experiment, the level of delayed gratification they were able to demonstrate even back then, was a higher predictor of future success in life than any other measure, including IQ tests, SAT test, and anything else.  For all the fancy results and analysis those and other tests provide us, they are less predictive of success in life than whether your five year-old self can successfully delay gratification long enough to get the second marshmallow.

This experiment, and others like it, speak to the power and importance of emotional intelligence.  For a very long time in our country, our focus was strictly intellectual intelligence, so much so that there was no need to use descriptors like “intellectual” or “emotional” when talking about intelligence – it was just assumed to be of the intellectual type measured by the Intelligence Quotient, or IQ tests.  While the idea of emotional intelligence had been around before him, it was psychologist Daniel Goleman who popularized the idea in America with his 1995 book, appropriately titled Emotional Intelligence.  In it, he observes the curious fact, at least from the old way of thinking about intelligence, that the best producers at Bell Labs, a research and development facility known for attracting the best and brightest minds, were not the employees with the highest IQ scores.  Further investigation revealed that the most innovative and successful Bell Labs employees were those who had what we might call the “social skills” to reach out to someone else within the company when they were stuck, and ask for help.  As Goleman explores in great depth, in that example, with the Stanford marshmallow experiments, and others – intellectual intelligence only gets us so far.  Our ability to manage our emotions, skillfully interact with others, and employ emotionally mature tactics like delayed gratification, play a large role in our success in life.  Not that intellectual intelligence doesn’t matter – it does – but just that emotional intelligence also plays a significant role.

These insights that Goleman offers makes me wonder, in our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition which rightly places such a strong emphasis on thinking, science and reason – what role do emotions and emotional intelligence have to play in a reasoned faith?

And then I think back to my time serving as a chaplain serving patients in the hospital, and I am reminded of the central message of our training there: be present.  Listen, and be present.  The most effective conversations I had as a chaplain were not the ones where I employed my intellect to analyze a person’s situation and suggested the most appropriate responses.  The most effective conversations I had were the ones were I asked good, open-ended questions, listened, and was present.  It was not my smarts that most helped the people I was serving, but my empathy.

My hope, as we explore our November theme of Emotional Intelligence, is that we can use this topic to deepen our understanding of ourselves and of our faith.  If we are to make meaning of our lives and of the world, it seems likely that it’s going to require us to be smart… smart intellectually, and smart emotionally.  I look forward to exploring this with you further together!

See you in church!


peace, love and blessings,

Rev. Seth