What do marshmallows have to do with self-control?

Psychology professor Walter Mischel’s 1960s experiment involving children, sugary sweets, and self-control has become a classic. The set-up is simple. A researcher lets a child pick a favorite food from a tray of  cookies, marshmallows, candies, pretzels, and other sweets. The researcher puts that treat on the table in front of the child and makes an offer. The child can eat it now. Or the child can wait a few minutes while the researcher goes to check on something else, and get two treats when the researcher returns. If the child loses patience, she can ring a bell, the researcher will come right back, and the child can eat the treat right away. She does not get another one, of course.

How children behaved in the Mischel experiment turned out to be a good predictor of other behaviors later in life. For instance, those who couldn’t wait for the second treat had more behavioral problems in school and scored lower on standardized tests. Those who could wait scored higher, maintained friendships well, and handled stress better. The experiment has been repeated many times since. Here is a recent one with marshmallows and some kids bravely fighting temptation as best they can.

Hat tip: Johannis Jappen


8 Responses to “What do marshmallows have to do with self-control?”

  1. Miguel Barbosa Says:

    Hi Nudge Blog,

    Great find. I found a complementary article via NYT.

    I posted it on my blog, here: http://www.simoleonsense.com/marshmellow-experimen-reduxcan-the-right-kinds-of-play-teach-self-control/

    or you can find it directly on NYT here: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/27/magazine/27tools-t.html



    P.S. Thanks for adding SimoleonSense to the blogroll

  2. Bill Clay Says:

    Another marshmallow test video which include commentary by adults: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=amsqeYOk–w

  3. ML Gordon Says:

    The psychologists who do these experiments fail to understand the spiritual meaning of their own work, but I do.

    In general, the good children who patiently wait for the Second Cookie (or other treat) are predestined for salvation. The good child has “faith” that the Second Cookie (or other treat) will be given unto him or her and will likely become an adult who has faith in God, patiently awaiting the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.

    The evil children who cannot wait for the Second Cookie are, in general, predestined for damnation. They have no faith in the Second Cookie, just like non-believers have no faith in God or the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. These children will become non-believing adults, sinners in the hands of an angry God. These sinners give up the joys of heaven–which are eternal–for the temporary pleasures of the flesh, such an apple offered by a Serpent or a Nobel Prize or a cookie.

    You can’t choose to be saved. He makes the choice, not you. God has predestined most of you for eternal damnation. You need to accept that fact. Only a few of you were chosen for eternal salvation. You cannot change your fundamental nature, any more than a pig can choose to fly or to become a kosher animal. It’s time to embrace the glorious truth taught by John Calvin, whose 500th birthday we now celebrate. Amen.

    • Christoph Says:

      YOU understand the spiritual meaning! I get the gist of what you are trying to convey – You are unintentionally funny. Please rectify this comment with the story of the ‘Prodigal Son’. Free Will to go his own way or predestined to go his own way? Free will to be saved or predestined to be saved.

      Please look up the terms Historian fallacy, translation fallacy, and cultural fallacy.

  4. East Bay Family Therapy Says:

    I love that commercial, I think this study is great and shows a lot about self control and delayed gratification. I think this would be great for adults except the teaser would be a smartphone instead of a marshmallow.

  5. Johannis Jappen Says:

    Hi guys,
    only by coincidence did I just find out that you have actually posted the video I suggested. Greetings from Germany to all nudgers.

  6. Johannis Jappen Says:

    Hi guys,
    only by coincidence did I find out that the team has actually included the video I suggested. Great, I’m happy you like it!

    Warm regards from Germany to all nudgers of the world.

  7. Christoph Says:

    I’ve often wondered if there was a hunger ‘control’ put into place for all the children i.e. Were they all fed or had they all eaten a reasonable measured amount before the test or within a certain alotted time of the test to dampen the true hunger and measure a progression of self will versus inherent hunger?

    I’d also be interested in knowing how many siblings they had and where they fell in birth order. For example, I have a hunch a younger child will likely take marshmallow moreso than elder, if they are used to always being served last. Sort of an inherent priority feeding control variable.

    What I would have liked to have seen done in this study is the reaction and follow up with a select group who DID wait 15-20 minutes but then WERE NOT ALLOWED to eat the marshmallow and how they developed and their attitudes / performance in later years. It would be interesting to see how PARENT / AUTHORITY figures actions in establishin trust have on a child’s development throughout their life and subsequent interactions.

    For example, the past summers political town hall meetings made me laugh as to how governments promise and DO NOT deliver or accept an inherent double standard – they have a govt health care plan that is way beyond anything the people have, and then want to tell the “people” what good they are going to do for them with a new health care policy. Reminds me of the humorous Insurance or Financial commercials recently that show an adult selling a child a policy or terms of an agreement and then how the child gives them a dumbfounded look when they do not deliver or have deceived them. I.e here’s the bicycle but, “oh, you can only ride it within this three foot circle.” HAHA

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