11 September 2011

The Marshmallow Test

The experiment went like this: Mischel invited a four-year old student at the Bing Nursery School into a small room, barely bigger than a closet. He then made her an offer. She could either eat one marshmallow right away or, if she was willing to wait fifteen minutes while he ran an errand, she could eat two marshmallows. Needless to say, most kids decided to wait. Mischel then left the room, but told the child that if she rang the bell on the table he would come running back and she could eat the marshmallow. However, this meant forfeiting the chance to get a second marshmallow.

The vast majority of four-year-olds struggled to resist the allure of the marshmallow. (The average waiting time was less than two minutes.)...

To extend their limited self-control, the little kids spontaneously invented a variety of mental strategies. Some covered their eyes with their hands or stood in the corner of the room, so that they couldn’t see the temptation. Others start kicking the desk, or tugged on their pigtails, or began stroking the marshmallow as if it were a stuffed animal. For about twenty-five percent of four-year olds, these strategies allowed them to successfully delay gratification until the experiment was over.
What I learned tonight is that there was a followup to this study:
Fast forward twelve years: the preschoolers are now in high-school. Mischel sent out an extensive questionnaire to the parents, teachers and academic advisors of the nearly 600 subjects who participated in the marshmallow task. The multiple-choice survey had no single theme. Instead, Mischel asked about every trait he could think of, from the ability of the teenagers to control their temper to whether or not they “embraced challenges” and got along with their peers. He also requested a copy of their SAT scores.

The correlations were clear: The children who rang the bell within a minute were much more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention in class and had serious problems with their temper. The difference between a child who could only wait thirty seconds and a child who could wait fifteen minutes was that the high-delayer had an SAT score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than the kid who couldn’t wait.... 
Further details at Wired Science.

Addendum:  Noumenon found an article indicating that the followup data on the marshmallow study may not be valid - discussed at The Daily Beast.


  1. Old and busted: force feeding kids classical music to make them smarter.
    New and fresh: Marshmallow-denial training camp at head start preschools.

  2. Thanks, Noumenon. Addendum appended to the post.


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