In the middle 20th century, a groundbreaking psychological experiment turned up an unexpected result, which has suggested thought-provoking things about human behavior ever since. The study is frequently cited in reference to occupational and scholastic success. And to conduct the experiment, all the testers needed were a few marshmallows. The experiment is a test to see whether a person appreciates the concept of a greater reward in exchange for delayed gratification.
Psychologists Walter Mischel and Ebbe B. Ebbesen, researchers at Stanford University in 1960, conducted a study which initiated with a group of over six hundred children individually being presented with a snack. The snack was sometimes a pretzel or a candy, but the marshmallow was also used and came to be the namesake of the test. The test was: Would the child accept the treat now, or wait a predetermined period of time in order to obtain two treats instead?
The experiment was a measure of self-control and discipline. One could interpret it as a test of a child’s understanding of labor; fifteen minutes of patient waiting earns an additional marshmallow. Various other theories of the study’s significance have formed over the years, making this one of the most discussed psychological experiments.
A small minority of the children tested ate the marshmallow as soon as the researcher left the room. Of the remaining kids who attempted to wait it out, only one third could manage to delay gratification the full time limit and earn a second marshmallow. The experiments were repeated through various trials, such as toys placed in a box which would be presented to the child upon waiting out the time period, or getting a preferred choice of cookies or animal crackers after waiting patiently. Sometimes during the waiting period the rewards were out of sight, and sometimes they were on the table in front of the child during the whole time.
The children who opted to delay gratification sometimes engaged in self-distracting behaviors, like covering their eyes or turning away from the reward, or idly fidgeting. This wasn’t counted as “cheating,” because they weren’t told they had to sit perfectly still; they were free to use whatever coping mechanisms they liked.
The Result and What The Test Says About Success
But the test itself was just an opening precursor. In follow-up, the children were tracked with further studies years later. Mischel was surprised to find a strong correlation between the children who successfully delay gratification and later academic success. The children who had good self-control scored higher on SAT tests and showed themselves to be overall more capable and confident.
The subjects eventually matured to adulthood, and the study continued to track them. A 2011 brain imaging study on the subjects in middle age showed key differences between the two groups of those who could or could not withstand the temptation. Further check-ups revealed the children who could pay fifteen minutes time to earn a greater reward were more successful in their careers and had overall better life outcomes across the board.
In the ensuing years, the study has been repeated in different forms with new groups of children. While the test isn’t always performed by the exact same rote, the findings usually fall along similar lines. An exact replication test was performed by Watts, Duncan and Quan in 2018; again they found a correlation between the patient kids and their later achievement record. There was even a separate study which tracked a one-to-one relation between how long the child waited before giving in and their later body weight as an adult.
The significance of this study is often claimed as being the difference between using one’s willpower to “save away” for a better outcome eventually, or to settle for the lesser reward on the spot. It has even been suggested that the matter of being able to delay gratification is physically embedded in the brain itself. While some caution not to read too much into the marshmallow experiment and its contemporaries, common sense conclusions are easily drawn.
The ability to delay gratification is related to all kinds of life decisions: putting away money in savings versus spending it now, working hard to exercise and lose weight versus giving in to obesity, abstaining from alcohol in order to avoid having a substance abuse issue versus indulging, and so on. Various kinds of addicting behavior, such as gambling, tend to hinge on the individual’s capacity for impulse control. The simple ability to delay gratification has been shown to have ramifications in the individual’s physical and psychological health, and social competence.
Interestingly, no correlation is found between the subject’s performance and behavioral problems. So this does not suggest that subjects who could not exert their willpower failed to do so because of criminal tendencies or other social maladjustment. There was also far less difference between the two subject groups when controlled for factors like coming from the same background in an economic or social class sense. In a way, the marshmallow experiment’s replication is leading some to call for re-thinking how we conduct psychological studies, so it may turn out to be significant either way.
Another interesting note is the age of the study’s participants on the initiation. The children are tested in their preschool years, age 4-7. This suggests that the ability to exert willpower is set or instilled at a very young age. But it also raises the question: Is this a pass-fail test whose results hold true forever? What if the children who first exerts no willpower learns later to develop their self-discipline? Maybe some subjects simply form the capacity for self-control later in life.
In any case, the marshmallow experiment is an enduring staple in the arena of psychological testing, continuing to generate new studies and published papers to this day. It is an important experiment, because it’s one of the few cases where we have attempted to quantify the elusive concepts of personality and behavioral tendencies and produce concrete results. Perhaps future employers will include a few marshmallows during their next round of interviewing candidates. If that time does come, we’re all advised to wisely wait for our greater reward.