The One-Question Interview

Pepper de Callier

Have you ever wished you had a “silver bullet” interview question that could cut through all the rehearsed responses that candidates have today and give you a reliable predictor of success? Well, thanks to more than forty years of research conducted by Professor Walter Mischel, you just might be able to do that. Before I give you the question let me give you the background I came across in a wonderful article written by Jonah Lehrer for The New Yorker.

In 1968, a Stanford University psychology professor, Dr. Mischel, went to Bing Nursery School, which is on the Stanford campus, to conduct an experiment that would be the beginning of a landmark study in behavior—a study that explored impulse control and is still cited today. Here’s how it worked: One by one, Professor Mischel asked the children to come into a room and have a seat at a table. On the table in front of the child was a plate full of treats: marshmallows, cookies, and pretzels—just the kinds of things kids love to eat at snack time.

Dr. Meschel then explained to the child that he or she could have one of their favorite treats right away or, if they waited until he came back into the room after stepping out for a few minutes, they could have two of whatever they wanted. With his team of researchers observing the children (653 in all) through a one-way mirror, he then stepped out of the room and closed the door. What happened next would prove to be a very reliable predictor of emotional stability, confidence, and success as an adult, not only in a career, but in interpersonal relationships.

Some of the children absolutely could not stand the anguish of the temptation and grabbed the one treat and ate it quickly, right away. They just couldn’t control their impulse, even if it meant they would only get one treat instead of two. Other children, however, waited, some up to fifteen minutes, until the professor returned. They were able to delay gratification—control their impulse—knowing the reward would be worth it. This was a very structured longitudinal study and the children were followed and studied through adulthood. In fact, the study continues to this day with the subjects well into their 40s, and the predictability of Professor Meschel’s findings continue to withstand the test of time. Lehrer sums up what he discovered: The children who grabbed the treat right away were more likely to have behavioral problems at school and at home. Throughout their childhood and adolescence they struggled with stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention and found it difficult to maintain friendships. Then, in a key examination for entrance to university, the people who were able to control their impulse as a child scored, on average, 210 points higher than those who couldn’t.

Now, what has this got to do with you today as you interview and select people to be on your team? A lot. For far too long we have focused on raw intelligence as the key predictor of success in life. In Leher’s piece, Professor Mischel argues that intelligence is largely at the mercy of self-control, or in his words: “Even smart kids have to do their homework. If you can deal with ‘hot emotions’ then you can study instead of watch TV and later save money for retirement—it’s not just about marshmallows.”

So, if for some reason, you had time to ask only one question of a candidate you were interviewing, here’s the one I would ask: Where in your life have you demonstrated the ability to delay gratification in pursuit of a difficult goal? Then watch the person’s face, eyes and body language and listen. Over the years I have heard some wonderful stories that truly added a dimension of understanding about the person’s character I was interviewing that would never have surfaced with the usual interview questions. I have also learned that the ability to delay gratification is a foundational element of emotional intelligence which is the Golden Fleece of the 21st century leader.

By the way, for those of you who were the childhood marshmallow grabbers, Professor Mischel offers hope. Lehrer writes that Mischel is particularly excited by the substantial subset of people who failed the marshmallow test as children but were able to delay gratification as adults. Mischel:”This is the group I’m most interested in. They have substantially changed their lives.”

So, what will it be—one marshmallow or two? It’s your choice.