The Marshmallow Test of Success
While I was picking up Jaden from my parent’s house, my dad showed me a clip from PBS that he saved on DVR for me to watch. A child is presented with a marshmallow and given a choice: Eat this one now, or wait and enjoy TWO marshmallows later. What will she do? And what are the implications for her behavior later in life? Although I love (safely) to do these kinds of social experiments on Jaden, I didn’t know about this study when she was 4. There is no doubt in my mind though that her deliberate, thoughtful, purposeful preschool self would have resisted temptation, especially when double the reward was offered. Learn below how researchers followed these kids for over 40 years and how there is a direct correlation between resisting temptation at four years old and finding success along life later on. SPOILER ALERT: There’s hope for the kids that ate the marshmallow too.
In the past, the kids were individually left in a room with a door, ages 4-6 years old at the table, on a chair, with a marshmallow on a plate.
- Let him/her sit in the chair.
- Tell them, “You can eat the marshmallow now but if you wait, when I come back you can have two marshmallows.”
- Once you know they understand the message, leave the room (setup a video camera to watch what they do! …and leave a comment with details because I want to know too!)
As it turns out, the two out of three kids, will eat the marshmallow before 15 minutes is up and the adult returns with the promised marshmallow. One out of three kids will wait for the adult to return and be handsomely rewarded with the second marshmallow. The kids that wait are obviously exhibiting more self-control and able to delay gratitude. A lot of times they also demonstrated creative ways to prevent themselves from eating said sugar like:
- Turning around in their chair, covering their eyes so they wouldn’t have to see the marshmallow
- Pushing the plate further away from them so that temptation wouldn’t be within arms reach.
What’s interesting is that the scientists followed the children for many years, some for 50 years! The first check in, 12 years later, surprised the researchers. 100% of one and three kids that resisted the urge to eat the marshmallow and held out for the better prize were:
- They scored 210 points higher in the SAT
- Had higher confidence, concentration, and reliability
Those that didn’t wait:
- Were found to be more easily frustrated, indecisive, disorganized.
And this makes sense. If you kid is able to delay gratification and demonstrate will-power, they might be better at pushing along a hard math problem without giving up the second it gets hard. They might not want to clean up, but they can push through the undesirable cleaning to become organized.
Let’s say you have the kid the eats the marshmallow. Or you were that kid (or still are.) Researcher and autho Walter Mischel says there’s hope! Although the four year old toddlers, early on, were able to resist temptation for something more valuable, anyone can be taught the ability to delay gratification.
The hot system is the limbic system in the brain. And it is reflexive, immediate, emotional. So, in order to slow that hot system, you have to activate the cool system, the prefrontal cortex. The problem is that the hot system goes up when stress goes up. And when people are living under conditions of toxic poverty, those are conditions that create huge stress levels. And they make the hot system keep getting hot. – Walter Mischel
The earlier self-control is taught, the better. “Me want it but me wait”, said Cookie Monsters. Cookie Monster worked with Mischel to create a video “as the poster-child for someone needing to master self-regulation skills, attempts to explain these concepts while devising personal strategies on waiting to eat a cookie.” Huffington Post goes into more detail in their article as well.
- PBS “South Bronx Kid Would have Failed the Marshmallow Test. So How did He Get into Yale?“
- NYTimes “Learning How to Exert Self-Control“
- Science News “Delaying gratification is about worldview as much as willpower“
- New Yorker “The Struggles of a Psychologist Studying Self-Control“
- The Guarian “The Marshmallow Test review – if you can resist, you will go far“
The Marshmallow Test: The Book
Publishing House book website here.
In his groundbreaking new book, Dr. Mischel draws on decades of compelling research and life examples to explore the nature of willpower, identifying the cognitive skills and mental mechanisms that enable it and showing how these can be applied to challenges in everyday life–from weight control to quitting smoking, overcoming heartbreak, making major decisions, and planning for retirement.
The Marshmallow Test in a Digital World:
(Credit: Dana Nelson)
I will add to this section as I go through more research material. If you don’t want to wait for the succinct summary, here are some articles I am currently reading on the same subject:
- Mind Shift “Measuring Students’ Self-Control: A ‘Marshmallow Test’ for the Digital Age“
- Mind Shift “How Does Multitasking Change the Way Kids Learn“
Final note, watch these kids struggle through the test!