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The Stanford marshmallow experiment[1] was a series of studies on delayed gratification in

the late 1960s and early 1970s led by psychologist Walter Mischel, then a professor
at Stanford University. In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small
reward provided immediately or two small rewards if they waited for a short period,
approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned. (The
reward was sometimes a marshmallow, but often a cookie or a pretzel.) In follow-up studies,
the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards
tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores,[2] educational attainment,
[3]
body mass index (BMI),[4] and other life measures.[5]

Original experiment[edit]
Origins[edit]
The experiment has its roots in an earlier one performed in Trinidad, where Mischel noticed
that the different ethnic groups living on the island had contrasting stereotypes about one
another, specifically the other's perceived recklessness, self-control, and ability to have fun.
[6]
This small (n= 53) study focused on male and female children aged 7 to 9 (35 Black and
18 East Indian) in a rural Trinidad school. The children were required to indicate a choice
between receiving a 1 candy immediately, or having a (preferable) 10 candy given to them
in one week's time. Mischel reported a significant ethnic difference, large age differences,
and that "Comparison of the "high" versus "low" socioeconomic groups on the experimental
choice did not yield a significant difference".[6] Absence of the father was prevalent in the
African-descent group (occurring only once in the East Indian group), and this variable
showed the strongest link to delay of gratification, with children from intact families showing
superior ability to delay.

Stanford experiment[edit]
The first Marshmallow Test was a study conducted by Walter Mischel and Ebbe B. Ebbesen
at Stanford University in 1970.[7]
The purpose of the original study was to understand when the control of deferred
gratification, the ability to wait to obtain something that one wants, develops in children. The
original experiment took place at the Bing Nursery School located at Stanford University,
using children age four to six as subjects. The children were led into a room, empty of
distractions, where a treat of their choice (Oreo cookie, marshmallow, or pretzel stick) was
placed on a table, by a chair.[1] The children could eat the marshmallow, the researchers said,
but if they waited for fifteen minutes without giving in to the temptation, they would be
rewarded with a second marshmallow.[1] Mischel observed that some would "cover their eyes
with their hands or turn around so that they can't see the tray, others start kicking the desk, or
tug on their pigtails, or stroke the marshmallow as if it were a tiny stuffed animal," while
others would simply eat the marshmallow as soon as the researchers left.[1]

In over 600 children who took part in the experiment, a minority ate the marshmallow
immediately. Of those who attempted to delay, one third deferred gratification long enough to
get the second marshmallow.[1] Age was a major determinant of deferred gratification.

Method[edit]
Subjects[edit]
Test subjects were 16 boys and 16 girls attending the Bing Nursery School of Stanford
University. Three other subjects were run, but eliminated because of their failure to
comprehend the instructions. The children ranged in age from 3 years, 6 months to 5 years,
8 months (with a median age of 4 years, 6 months). The procedures were conducted by two
male experimenters. Eight subjects (four male and four female) were assigned randomly to
each of the four experimental conditions. In each condition each experimenter ran two boys
and two girls in order to avoid systematic biasing effects from sex or experimenters. [7]
The conditions[edit]
1. Both the immediate (less preferred) and the delayed (more preferred) reward were
left facing the subject and available for attention[7]
2. Neither reward was available for the subjects attention, both rewards having been
removed from his/her sight[7]
3. The delayed reward only was left facing the subject and available for attention while
he or she waited[7]
4. The immediate reward only was left facing the subject and available for attention
while he or she waited[7]
Procedure[edit]
On the table in the experimental room there were five pretzels and an opaque cake tin.
Under the cake tin were five pretzels and two animal cookies. There were two chairs in front
of the table, on one chair was an empty cardboard box. On the floor near the chair with the
cardboard box on it were four battery operatedtoys. The experimenter pointed out the four
toys; before the child could play with the toys, the experimenter asked the child to sit in the
chair and then demonstrated each toy briefly and in a friendly manner, saying that they would
play with the toys later on. Then the experimenter placed each toy in the cardboard box and
out of sight of the child. The experimenter explained to the child that the experimenter
sometimes has to go out of the room but if the child eats a pretzel the experimenter will come
back into the room. These instructions were repeated until the child seemed to understand
them completely. The experimenter left the room and waited for the child to eat a pretzel
they did this four times.
Next the experimenter opened the cake tin to reveal two sets of reward objects to the child:
five pretzels and two animal crackers. The experimenter asked which of the two the child

liked better (preferred reward), and after the child chose, the experimenter explained that the
child could either continue waiting for the more preferred reward until the experimenter
returned, or the child could stop waiting by bringing the experimenter back. If the child
stopped waiting, then the child would receive the less favored reward and forgo the more
preferred one.
Depending on the condition and the childs choice of preferred reward, the experimenter
picked up the cake tin and along with it either nothing, one of the rewards, or both. The
experimenter returned either as soon as the child signaled him to do so or after 15 minutes. [7]

Follow-up studies[edit]
In follow-up studies, Mischel found unexpected correlations between the results of the
marshmallow test and the success of the children many years later. [5] The first follow-up
study, in 1988, showed that "preschool children who delayed gratification longer in the selfimposed delay paradigm, were described more than 10 years later by their parents as
adolescents who were significantly more competent."
A second follow-up study, in 1990, showed that the ability to delay gratification also
correlated with higherSAT scores.[5]
A 2006 paper to which Mischel contributed reports a similar experiment, this time relating
ability to delay in order to receive a cookie (at age 4) and reaction time on a Go/no go task.[8]
A 2011 brain imaging study of a sample from the original Stanford participants when they
reached mid-life showed key differences between those with high delay times and those with
low delay times in two areas: the prefrontal cortex (more active in high delayers) and
the ventral striatum (an area linked to addictions) when they were trying to control their
responses to alluring temptations.[9][10]
A 2012 study at the University of Rochester (with a smaller N= 28) altered the experiment by
dividing children into two groups: one group was given a broken promise before the
marshmallow test was conducted (the unreliable tester group), and the second group had a
fulfilled promise before their marshmallow test (the reliable tester group). The reliable tester
group waited up to four times longer (12 min) than the unreliable tester group for the second
marshmallow to appear.[11][12] The authors argue that this calls into question the original
interpretation of self-control as the critical factor in children's performance, since self-control
should predict ability to wait, not strategic waiting when it makes sense. Prior to the
Marshmallow Studies at Stanford, Walter Mischel had shown that the child's belief that the
promised delayed rewards would actually be delivered is an important determinant of the
choice to delay, but his later experiments did not take this factor into account or control for
individual variation in beliefs about reliability when reporting correlations with life successes.
[13][14][15][16]

What the Marshmallow Test Really Teaches About


Self-Control
One of the most influential modern psychologists, Walter Mischel,
addresses misconceptions about his study, and discusses how both
adults and kids can master willpower.

Maryam Abdulghaffar/Flickr

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JACO BA U R I ST

SEP 24, 2014


The image is iconic: A little kid sits at a table, his face contorted in
concentration, staring down a marshmallow. Over the last 50 years, the
Marshmallow Test has become synonymous with temptation,
willpower, and grit. Walter Mischels work permeates popular culture.
There are Dont Eat the Marshmallow! t-shirts and Sesame Street
episodes where Cookie Monster learns delayed gratification so he can
join the Cookie Connoisseurs Club. Investment companies have used the
Marshmallow Test to encourage retirement planning. And when I
mentioned to friends that I was interviewing the Marshmallow Man
about his new book, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering SelfControl, nobody missed the reference.
It began in the early 1960s at Stanford Universitys Bing Nursery School,
where Mischel and his graduate students gave children the choice
between one reward (like a marshmallow, pretzel, or mint) they could
eat immediately, and a larger reward (two marshmallows) for which
they would have to wait alone, for up to 20 minutes. Years later, Mischel

and his team followed up with the Bing preschoolers and found that
children who had waited for the second marshmallow generally fared
better in life. For example, studies showed that a childs ability to delay
eating the first treat predicted higher SAT scores and a lower body mass
index (BMI) 30 years after their initial Marshmallow Test. Researchers
discovered that parents of high delayers even reported that they were
more competent than instant gratifierswithout ever knowing
whether their child had gobbled the first marshmallow.
But theres been criticism of Mischels findings toothat his samples are
too small or homogenous to support sweeping scientific conclusions and
that the Marshmallow Test actually measures trust in authority, not
what he says his grandmother called sitzfleisch, the ability to sit in a seat
and reach a goal, despite obstacles. I met with Mischel in his Upper
West Side home, where we discussed what the Marshmallow Test really
captures, how schools can use his work to help problem students, why
men like Tiger Woods and President Bill Clinton may have suffered
willpower fatigueand whether I should be concerned that my fiveyear old devoured the marshmallow (in his case, a small chocolate
cupcake) in 30 seconds.
Jacoba Urist: I have to tell you right off, my son is in kindergarten and
he flunked the Marshmallow Test last night.
Walter Mischel: First, its important that I say the test in quotes,
because it didnt start out as a test but a situation where we were
studying the kinds of things that kids did naturally to make self-control
easier or harder for them. Four-year-olds can be brilliantly imaginative
about distracting themselves, turning their toes into piano keyboards,
singing little songs, exploring their nasal orifices.
"Its really not about candy. The studies are about achievement
situations and what influences a child to reach his or her choice."
Urist: The problem is, I think he has no motivation for food. In our
house, dessert isnt a big deal. Could the kids who wait for the
marshmallow just not care that much about treats? Maybe their families
didnt use food as a reward system so they didnt respond to it as a
motivator?
Mischel: You have to understand, in the studies we did, the
marshmallows are not the ones presented in the media and on YouTube

or on the cover of my book. They were these teeny, weeny pathetic


miniature marshmallows or the difference between one tiny, little
pretzel stick and two little pretzel sticks, less than an inch tall. Its really
not about candy. Many of the kids would bag their little treats to say,
Look what I did and how proud mom is going to be. The studies are
about achievement situations and what influences a child to reach his or
her choice. In some cases, we even used two colored poker chips versus
one.
Urist: How important is trust then? Some critics claim that a 2012
University of Rochester study calls the Marshmallow Test into question.
Children in a reliable environment (where they could trust that the
delayed reward would materialize) waited four times longer than
children in the unreliable group. Were the kids in your test simply
making a rational choice and assessing reliability? And wouldnt that
factor be outside the scope of the original Marshmallow Tests?
Mischel: This is another thing the media regularly misses. Before the
marshmallow experiments, I researched trust in decision-making for
adults and children. Trust is a tremendous issue. Therefore, in the
Marshmallow Tests, the first thing we do is make sure the researcher is
someone who is extremely familiar to the child and plays with them in
the playroom before the test. Its also important to realize, its not a
matter of if somebody will come back with the two little marshmallows.
They are all right there on the tray. Its all out in the open, so theres no
trust issue about whether the marshmallows are real.
Urist: When it comes to correlations between the Marshmallow Test
and indicators of success later in life, some people say the marshmallow
tests are based on too small a sample to draw meaningful conclusions,
that you originally studied over 500 children, but you only tracked down
94 of the participants SAT scores?
Mischel: We didnt want parental reports of SAT scores. We actually
wanted to be able to contact the organization that administered the SAT
at the time and therefore had to use a subset of the children. But the
correlations were sufficiently strong that the smaller sample size isnt
relevant. To me, the real problem was that we were dealing with an
incredibly homogenous sample, either children of Stanford faculty or
Stanford graduate studentsand we still saw strong correlation. But it
was an unbelievably elitist subset of the human race, which was one of
the concerns that motivated me to study children in the South Bronx

kids in high-stress, poverty conditionsand yet we saw many of the


same phenomena as the marshmallow studies were revealing.
Urist: Are some children who delay responding to authority? Could
waiting be a sign of wanting to please an adult and not a proxy for innate
willpower? Presumably, even little kids can glean what the researchers
want from them.
Mischel: Maybe. They might be responding to anything under the sun.
But itshow they respond. The most interesting thing, I think, about the
studies is not the correlations that the press picks up, but that the
marshmallow studies became the basis for testing all kinds of adults and
how adults deal with difficult emotions that are very hard to distance
yourself from, like heartbreak or grief.
[Ed. note: Mischels book draws on the marshmallow studies to explore
how adults can master the same cognitive skills that kids use to
distract themselves from the treat, when they encounter challenges in
everyday life, from quitting smoking to overcoming a difficult
breakup.]
R E L AT E D STO RY

The Chocolate-and-Radish Experiment That Birthed the Modern


Conception of Willpower
Urist: I have to ask you about President Clinton and Tiger Woods, both
mentioned in the book. Ive heard ofdecision fatigueare their
respective media scandals both examples of adults who suffered from
willpower fatigue? Men who could exercise enormous self-discipline
on the golf course or in the Oval office but less so personally?
Mischel: No question. People experience willpower fatigue and plain
old fatigue and exhaustion. What we do when we get tired is heavily
influenced by the self-standards we develop and that in turn is strongly
influenced by the models we have. Bill Clinton simply may have a
different sense of entitlement: I worked hard all day, now Im entitled to
X, Y, or Z. Confusion about these kinds of behaviors [tremendous
willpower in one situation, but not another] is erased when you realize
self-control involves cognitive skills. You can have the skills and not use
them. If your kid waits for the marshmallow, [then you know] she is able
to do it. But if she doesnt, you dont know why. She may have decided
she doesnt want to.

Urist: So for adults and kids, self-control or the ability to delay


gratification is like a muscle? You can choose to flex it or not?
Mischel: Yes, absolutely. Thats a perfectly reasonable analogy.
Urist: In the book, you advise parents if their child doesnt pass the
Marshmallow Test, ask them why they didnt wait. What should I be
trying to elicit from my son about why he grabbed the first little
cupcake? When I asked, he just shrugged and said, I dont know.
Mischel: It sounds like your son is very comfortable with cupcakes and
not having any cupcake panics and I wish him a hearty
appetite. Whether the information is relevant in a school setting
depends on how the child is doing in the classroom. If he or she is doing
well, who cares? But if the child is distracted or has problems regulating
his own negative emotions, is constantly getting into trouble with
others, and spoiling things for classmates, what you can take from my
work and my book, is to use all the strategies I discussnamely
making if-then plans and practicing them. Having a whole set of
procedures in place can help a child regulate what he is feeling or doing
more carefully.
Urist: One last question. After all these years, why a book now?
Mischel: Well, there are two reasons. First, so much research has
exploded onexecutive function and there have been so many
breakthroughs in neuroscience on how the brain works to make it
harder or easier to exercise self-control. Its an enormously exciting time
within science for understanding in a much deeper way the relationships
between mind, brain, and behavior and to ask the important questions:
How can you regulate yourself and control yourself in ways that make
your life better? Second, there have been so many misunderstandings
about what the Marshmallow Test does and doesnt do, what the lessons
are to take from it, that I thought I might as well write about this rather
than have arguments in the newspapers.