'Marshmallow Test' psychologist discusses self-control

Walter Mischel gives a talk at Stanford on children and behavior

Fifty years ago, Walter Mischel embarked on a now famous study called "The Marshmallow Test" in which young children are presented with a simple choice: eat one marshmallow immediately, or wait for several minutes and be awarded with an additional treat.

Mischel returned to the study's birthplace last week, Bing Nursery School at Stanford, to present the findings discussed in his new book, "The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control."

Attendees in the packed auditorium were all ears for Mischel's talk, which gave an overview of his long-term study on children's ability to delay gratification and how that predicts developmental outcomes and success later in their lives. He also shared truths about misconceptions of the study, such as the diminutive size of the treats he used in the original study compared to the giant marshmallow pictured on the cover of his book.

The inspiration for testing children's self-control came from Mischel's three young daughters. Watching them develop left Mischel wondering what was going on in their heads and spurred him to begin a study at the Bing school.

"As I saw them go from zero to 5, I saw this incredible miracle in which kids change in this extraordinary, dramatic and wonderful way," Mischel said. "They go from the impulsive creature that Freud described in great detail, to becoming wonderful human beings that you can actually have conversations with."

Although the Bing children were never filmed, Mischel presented a recording of a different study group to highlight common, and priceless, reactions from the kids. The reactions varied from child to child and showed some inventive ways they distract themselves from the sweet. (Watch one replication of the study.)

The kids resisted the treat by singing tunes, swinging their legs, turning themselves around and picking their noses -- all yielding different delay times. One boy didn't waste a second and immediately devoured the treat, which Mischel characterized as the "straightforward 'to hell with it'" method. The reactions and wait times the children displayed showed the different tools they each possessed.

Ten years after the initial testing, Mischel followed up on the Bing school subjects to analyze the trajectory of their willpower, and he continued to check up with them over the years. He explained the correlation between their ability to maintain self-control in the face of tasty marshmallows and outcomes later in life. Children who were able to resist longer tended to score higher on the SAT, cope well with stress and fare better socially as they grew older.

Marshmallows are not soothsayers, however, and testing poorly does not guarantee an unfortunate future. According to Mischel, certain strategies to increase willpower can be taught and learned -- a hopeful sign for short-term delayers.

"I saw that the question I really wanted to address is, once the choice has been made, 'I want the delayed reward, I want the bigger thing," what makes it possible to resist the power of the immediate temptation?" Mischel said.

He presented further testing that showed impulsive behavior can be quelled by utilizing a number of strategies, such as pretending the marshmallow is just a picture of a dessert, or focusing on what Mischel calls "cool" qualities of the object of desire. Instead of considering the yummy, chewiness of a marshmallow, a child might think about how it looks round and puffy like a cloud.

Another mental tool is to imagine living the decision before making the choice, to really visualize the consequences of immediate actions. Mischel related the difficulty of looking ahead to the struggle he had when he quit smoking. At first, hearing about the negative health effects the habit could have on him did nothing to ease his addiction.

He shared a vivid memory of seeing a cancer patient in the hospital painted with green crosses for radiation treatment. The image stuck with him and became a horrible reminder of the consequences of smoking. One day he made a deal with his daughter and vowed to quit.

"'You stop sucking your thumb; I'll stop sucking my pipe,'" Mischel remembered saying.

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7 people like this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 22, 2014 at 2:03 pm

Well, I'm no expert, but we often find that things that we thought were brilliant ideas brought to us by experts were not so great either in the fullness of time. I started reading about this marshmallow test over a decade ago in psychology and neuroscience books.

It seems to have expanded over time to declare that you can tell whether someone is going to be a winner (CEO) or loser (homeless) in life by whether as a kid he decides to eat or not eat a marshmallow.

While I think there is something to this, but what? How do we know that it is always impulsive behavior to eat the marshmallow. Maybe the kid doesn't like to eat more than one marshmallow and doesn't like to have to think about all this nonsense ... so he, or she, just eats their one marshmallow happily ... and then gets labelled a loser in life. They are told and their parents are told, this kid has no self-control ... and so a self-fulfilling prophecy begins ... but one lots of doctors, psychologists and counselors can grab on to and leverage to make themselves look more important and knowledgeable.

Maybe we ought to spend more time trying to analyze the motives and methods of the people who try to tell us about our own motives and behavior, because after all, WE, the people are just going about life, whereas they are going about building their livings and reputations ... who has the more honest motivations?

And besides, marshmallows are only good when they have been roasted over a fire with friends and family around, and sometimes you get just as much validation from the laugh when your marshmallow falls into the fire than you get satisfaction from eating it. ;-)

Like this comment
Posted by Marshmellow
a resident of Southgate
on Nov 24, 2014 at 9:36 am

First impressions are the key into ones mind and you summed it up rather nicely. "Well, I'm no expert" despite your sweet tooth

6 people like this
Posted by SP
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Nov 24, 2014 at 2:20 pm

Well, I actually was one of the kids in the study. I remember the test pretty vividly. A small room, a table, a chair, a teacher puts a marshmallow on the table and says, if I wait, I get another one. Then leaves the room. I think there was a mirror. I waited. When he came back, he put the other marshmallow on the table and said I could eat it. I told him I didn't like marshmallows. He seemed perturbed. If I remember right, he asked me what I liked and changed it to a cookie the next day.

I remember another test. They gave me an Etch-a-sketch and told me to draw something and left the room. I drew a box around the outside edge. The man came back and looked at the blank Etch-a-Sketch. He told me to draw something again. I told him that I did draw something and told him to look closer. He said no I didn't. We argued. I then explained what I had drawn. He looked perturbed. He told me to draw something else.

My mom told me I had been expelled from nursery school for drawing on the walls. I liked Bing. I could draw on just about anything there.

2 people like this
Posted by Arla
a resident of another community
on Nov 24, 2014 at 9:31 pm

I wonder if the psychologists took into account a child's previous experience with the trustworthyness of authority? A child raised in a home where commitments and promises are typically kept is much more likely to feel safe deferring a reward. A child living in an environment where parents can't be relied upon to keep their word would actually be wise to take the "sure thing" marshmallow.

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Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 24, 2014 at 9:36 pm

The bigger picture is being missed here. It isn't about marshmallows, or the test (all tests are flawed), it is about how important self control is. Marshmallows don't affect your future, but your lack of self control might.

2 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 24, 2014 at 9:58 pm

I've exercised all my self-control to not post a comment here yet. But now that have, it sure tasted good.

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 25, 2014 at 7:51 am

[Post removed.]

3 people like this
Posted by Arla
a resident of another community
on Nov 25, 2014 at 9:33 am

Mr. Recycle, I don't believe anyone is missing the point. This is an iconic and well-known study about delayed gratification and that children who learn to defer a reward will benefit in the future. My point is that rather than measuring inate emotional maturity, perhaps children raised in more chaotic, unreliable environments are being taught through experience to accept immediate rewards and that children from "good" homes learn that it is safe to wait for a bigger reward in the future. Could this be a mechanism where children raised in impoverished environments are being handicapped in later life in comparison to children raised in more stable and supportive environments?

1 person likes this
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 25, 2014 at 11:43 am

>> Mr.Recycle ... it is about how important self control is.

Maybe a bit more, the "marshmallow test" is used as a technique for measuring self-control. I think the test is not objective, not controlled, and is more of an intuitive demonstration to market scientists who use this to dodge what they don't know with a parlor trick. To test self-control there are a lot of variables one would have to look at and consider.

In the book "Willpower" by Roy F. Baumeister, this is gone into in many interesting ways. Your blood glucose level can affect your self-control or your thinking. So can what other stuff is on your mind. It is not a personal quality stuck on people, it is condition of someone's being trying to make the best decision they can with the information they have, the importance they give to it, with the mental and physical resources they have.

For an example, judges in court are more merciful early in the day giving out more lenient sentences than they do when they are close to the lunch hour, when they are hungry and glucose depleted. There is a hell of a lot to think about in this subject, the marshmallow test doesn't really scratch the surface and might do not harm than good if it ends up labelling someone as weak-minded or having no willpower.

1 person likes this
Posted by Menlo Parker
a resident of Menlo Park
on Nov 25, 2014 at 12:29 pm

I asked my 10-year-old granddaughter what she would have done on the test. She said she would leave the marshmallow "Because I don't like marshmallows and I'd get two to give to my sister."
She does have good self-control, but that test wouldn't prove it.

Like this comment
Posted by Puff
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 25, 2014 at 5:01 pm

I'd eat the marshmallow and enjoy the moment because there may not ever be another marshmallow and there many not ever be another moment.

1 person likes this
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Gunn High School
on Nov 25, 2014 at 5:11 pm

I went to the Sadie Hawkins dance with his daughter Rebecca in 1980 at Gunn High and have been waiting 34 years to get my kiss good night.

2 people like this
Posted by yawn2
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 26, 2014 at 10:07 am

Extremely disappointed that the paloaltoonline has gone to censoring comments. there were MANY very good comments regarding the Ferguson fiasco that have been deleted. i refuse to read anymore paloaltoonline articles until this unconstitutional censorship ceases. you profess you stand for protesting and free speech--(the riots in Ferguson are ok), but if someone disagrees with your viewpoint--they are silenced immediately. SHAME ON YOU PALO ALTO ONLINE!!!

Like this comment
Posted by Martin Weiss
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 26, 2014 at 10:26 am

Walter Mischel's book is a good read - for adults.

Michelle Claus released a children's book earlier this year which is geared for the younger readers as well as parents who would like to discuss the value of "waiting for something even better."

Check out her book at Amazon ( Web Link )
and Barnes & ( Web Link)

Already have the book? Please provide a review or comment to let us know what you think.

1 person likes this
Posted by village fool
a resident of another community
on Nov 26, 2014 at 10:28 am


Good Luck in convincing the moderators!

The ongoing censorship was the reason that had me srtart a blog, a place where I cannot be deleted....

I have dedicated a page to the censorship. You can find many comments Before & After being censored here -

Web Link

Unfortunately, my time does not enable me to post all the censoring I happen to notice.
Should your comment be censored, I'll post it.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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