In one of the most famous experiments in the history of psychology, Walter Mischel and his students exposed four-year-old children to a cruel dilemma. They were given a choice between a small reward (one Oreo), which they could have at any time, or a larger reward (two cookies) for which they had to wait 15 minutes under dificult conditions. They were to remain alone in a room, facing a desk with two objects: a single cookie and a bell that the child could ring at any time to call in the experimenter and receive the one cookie. As the experiment was described: “There were no toys, books, pictures, or other potentially distracting items in the room. The experimenter left the room and did not return until 15 min had passed or the child had rung the bell, eaten the rewards, stood up, or shown any signs of distress.”
The children were watched through a one-way mirror, and the iilm that shows their behavior during the waiting time always has the audience roaring in laughter. About half the children managed the feat of waiting for 15 minutes, mainly by keeping their attention away from the tempting reward. Ten or fifteen years later, a large gap had opened between those who had resisted temptation and those who had not. The resisters had higher measures of executive control in cognitive tasks, and especially the ability to reallocate their attention effectively As young adults, they were less likely to take drugs. A significant difference in intellectual aptitude emerged: the children who had shown more self-control as four-year-olds had substantially higher scores on tests of intelligence.
Thinking, fast and slow - Daniel Kahneman