The Marshmallow Test

03.11.2018 |

Episode #3 of the course Most brilliant social psychology experiments by John Robin


Welcome to Day 3 and another tour through the strange world of social psychology.

Today, I’m going to make a strong claim:

Children who can resist the reward of a marshmallow at the age of four are highly likely to go on and become more successful in life than those who don’t.

In fact, there’s science behind this, which is what today’s experiment is all about.


A Study That Reached across a Lifetime

In the 1960s and 1970s, Stanford university researchers who rounded up children aged four to six, both boys and girls, to be part of their experiment were thinking about effects far beyond the initial outcomes. The children were led into a room, empty of distractions, where they were presented the following predicament:

For each child, there was one marshmallow on a table—the only distraction in the room!

The children were told they could eat the marshmallow, but that would be all that they’d get, unless …

They chose to not eat the marshmallow; then, they’d get two. They only had to wait 15 minutes. They were told this before being left in the room with their looming instant reward—and predicament.

Of the 600 children who participated in this experiment, 67% failed. Even those who didn’t fail struggled, often having to cover their eyes or put the marshmallow somewhere out of view (some even kicked their table, and a few girls were documented as tugging at their pigtails).

But the most interesting results of this study weren’t in measuring the percentage of children who would withstand temptation (a concept known as delayed gratification). It was the follow-up studies on all these children as they grew up through the ‘80s and ‘90s.

During teen years, most of the children who couldn’t say no to the instant marshmallow reward struggled more with addictions and poor diet choices, while those who were able to see the bigger picture were less prone to both. Many of the children who could delay their gratification at the age of four went on to score higher on college entry tests and ultimately ended up in highly successful positions in life.


Learning about Delayed Gratification

Walter Mischel and Ebbe B. Ebbesen, the researchers, did not stumble on this by chance. They entered the study wanting to know more about exactly when one’s ability to overcome instant gratification takes shape.

Instant vs. delayed gratification was something researchers in the 1960s were curious about, based especially on an earlier experiment performed in Trinidad studying rural school children. Their research, both in the marshmallow experiment and in the later results as each child grew up, helped shine light on how the ability to resist the urge for immediate gratification is reflective of an innate quality of character that develops early in life.

This quality is still being studied, though in 2011, a sample of the original marshmallow experiment participants were chosen, and using brain imaging, it was shown that those who delayed gratification and performed better in life had lots of activity in their prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain located at the forehead), while those who had difficulty and ate the marshmallow usually had more activity in a structure called the ventral striatum (located deep within the head, close to the center of the brain).

Whether the ultimate source of our ability to delay gratification is genetic or learned, one thing is for certain if you’re a parent or someone who works closely with children: Trying to teach them early about the importance of “short-term pain for long-term gain” is critical—in fact, it might change their lives for the better.

Tomorrow, we’ll switch gears and move from reward to torture in an experiment that explores its psychological roots to the core.


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Recommended resource

Check out the Science journal; it helps to stay up to date on the latest developments in science, including articles by scientists like the ones who designed today’s test.


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