The infamous marshmallow test popped up again today in the New York Times. For those of you unfamiliar with the experiment, a group of four year-olds were given the choice between receiving one marshmallow that they could eat immediately and waiting 30 seconds for a second marshmallow. More than a decade later, their standardized-test performance was tracked, with some rather remarkable results:

The difference between a 4-year-old who can wait 30 seconds for a marshmallow, and one who can wait 15 minutes was 210 points on the SAT,” (neuroscientist Jonah) Lehrer reported. He stressed that the key to success – in test-taking, in college and beyond – is discipline, and the key to discipline is, rather ironically, learning to distract oneself. As evidence, he mentioned the children who had been successful in resisting temptation: those who turned their backs on treats or closed their eyes.

Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting that you’re doomed on the SAT if you were in fact the sort of four year-old who just couldn’t bear to wait an extra 30 seconds for a marshmallow. Even if you’ve never had a problem with delayed gratification, it still wouldn’t hurt to take Lehrer’s words to heart, particularly when it comes to Critical Reading.

You see, vocabulary weaknesses aside, the single biggest stumbling block for relatively high scorers (650-700) who want to make it into the stratosphere (750-800) is the unwillingness to delay gratification — that is, to avoid looking at the answer choices until after they’ve worked out the entire problem for themselves, and to avoid jumping to a particular answer just so that they can get the question over with and move on. They simply assume — repeatedly and incorrectly — that they’ll always be able to identify the correct answer when they read through the options. They therefore see no reason to cross things out or mark them or sum them up and right them down… Frankly, that’s unpleasant. It takes, well, work. Besides they’re getting pretty much everything right already. And they want that marshmallow now. That’s why their scores have a nasty tendency to plateau, leading to frustration and an even stronger desire to just get it over with. Cue the vicious cycle.

So if this happens to apply to you, remember: the answer choices are there to distract you. They’re written to sound entirely plausible, even if they’re completely preposterous. The best way to distract yourself from falling for those distractions (!) is to work systematically through every step of the problem and determine as much as you can about the correct answer so that you can’t be fooled when you look at the answer choices. Take the extra five or ten or even thirty seconds. You’ll probably get more questions right. It probably wouldn’t hurt to get yourself a marshmallow either. I’m sure you could use the sugar rush;)