The Marshmallow Test: Psychological Experiments in Self-Control

marshmallow

In this reprise of a now-classic Stanford psychological experiment from the 1960s, kids are put in a room with a marshmallow and told they can either eat it immediately or wait until the researcher gets back, and they'll be given a second marshmallow. Hilarity ensues as the kids suffer marshmallow temptation!

But the consequences go deeper: In the New Yorker article "Don’t!" from May that detailed the very same experiment, it turned out that the ones who passed the marshmallow test enjoyed greater success as adults. Said Walter Mischel, the Stanford professor of psychology in charge of the experiment, "What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t will power or self-control... It’s much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it.”

Video: Marshmallow Test

[via Buzzfeed]

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75 Comments

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  1. Helen

    I never thought to smell a marshmallow before watching this.

  2. Joe Marfice

    My favorite is the little redhead, who clearly decided "Will power is for others!", and ate it before the researcher even stood up.

    Go, little curve-breaker! Outlier or bust!

  3. Rob Harris

    Quality. Unfortunately the study is a bit shot. The kids won't be thinking purely about the second marshmallow - they'll be thinking of the adult's implication that they want them to comply. This is about acceptance of authority, not future planning.

    • wen

      spoken like an adult

    • Laryssa Leigh

      Doesn't trying to win acceptance from an authority figure also fall in the category of planning for the future. (though not for a food reward)

    • r_sam

      that's not entirely accurate as the adult never implies at the onset that behaving one way or the other would necessarily be compliant or defiant behavior.

    • courtney

      There are so many problems with this experiment, including the one you stated. The experiment can also only be generalized to a population of Caucasian (and mostly male) children.

    • Jeremy

      Experimenter bias...is what you are talking about, she may not have realized but subtle things like tone or even body language can send messages to a child, making them think that waiting is a more desirable outcome.

    • aliyarose

      they said it was about future success- not necessarily just future planning. Acceptance of authority, in our current society, is unfortunately is part of success.

    • Leah

      A very valid point!

    • the ones who passed the marshmallow test enjoyed greater success as adults

      To put it even more depressingly, the test is about acceptance of authority and the ability to endure boredom, so the above makes sense.

      Also, I wonder if they did a control where the researcher said, "You can eat it now or when I get back" with no mention of a reward for the latter.

    • tom schreiber

      actually the child will be thinking about the second marshmallow. Its the whole premise of reward vs discipline. If you tell a child to read 10 pages and they get a prize, the child will read the pages, without learning one thing because the whole time they will be wanting the prize. The children do not realize what the adults are doing, they are wanting two marshmallows.

  4. Magdalena

    My favorite part is the end, when the littel boy eats the two marshmallow. Self-control... but when you get it!

  5. Pazuzu

    now that's what I call finding an excuse to torture kids :-/

  6. Rob, but the adults did give them 2 options!
    "Eat it now, OR later, if you wait ill give you another one"....
    The adults were fine with both options...

    • Cameron

      However, the way that the suggestions are stated are subtle, but important. The researcher said "now or later and I'll give you a second one." This puts the later in a higher frame of importance and thus the children recognize, some of them at least, that the second suggestion is more important to the adult. I am sure that the researchers considered this in their testing though.

      • Alex

        Does it really, "puts the later in a higher frame of importance"? That sounds exactly like the sort of thing a psychologist would have to test, not just assume.

      • aliyarose

        That is the point! To put higher significance to waiting, patience, putting time in to achieve a greater reward. That is what they wanted to see- if these kids will naturally do that- the tone and hidden implications are actually irrelevant. Even as adults we are still given hidden implications as to which choice is better. Regardless, in most situations, waiting and putting time in suffices to two marshmallows so to speak.

  7. george the flawed thinker

    I would have asked the following; "The plate must contain just a marshmallow, correct?" When answered yes...I would have torn off 90% of the marshmellow and eaten that part. The researcher comes back in and cannot deny that there is, indeed, a marshmallow on my plate - THUS! i get a second marshmallow. epic win! muahaha.

  8. Seriously?

    If you were a small child, accustomed to constant attention and supervision from adults and children alike, what would you do if someone left you alone in a near-empty room with nothing to do? This experiment is confounded.

  9. Mike B

    I agree with Rob, kids are used to being told what to do so they may not automatically perceive it as a free option. And listen to what she asks when she came back "How did you do?" Implying that there may have been a right way. They know it's a test. But soo much fun to watch..

  10. Amanda

    RadioLab did a great followup the the original authors of the study back in the 60's. It's a really interesting piece, as is all of RadioLab. Hop on over to wnyc.org to check it out.

  11. Concerns about the researcher's script and the situation are irrelevant: I'm not sure where this video came from, but it certainly wasn't from the study. Neither the script nor the situation is the same as it was for either study (published 2002 and 1974).

    At any rate - practice some critical thinking! There are MANY MANY limitations to releasing the details of research, eg videos. This video was created by a video producer for a church (which is not to say that means it's necessarily empirically unsound, but simply that it may not have been conducted with the full amount of scientific rigour).

    It's a good video, but certainly not an excellent study.

    While the comments above certainly apply to the video shown, they do not apply to the research findings.

  12. sorry - forgot to edit my post as i researched - i did, in fact, find where the video came from, as is clarified further down.

  13. Serg

    If they had a Tv in there or some other distraction they would not eat it. Its the because all the focus is on the marshmallow, makes it had to resist. The brain is just needs to be tricked. U can also do the same test to see who will become who when they grow up and see what kind of family they grow up in. For example the little girl that ate it, has a family that's on the go and don't pay a lot of attention to her, and let her get away with a lot, and she may have a brother. So she will grow up to be.. well dont want to speculate cuz its not to nice on my part..

  14. "I wonder if they would notice if I pick at it and put it back upside down."

    I've never thought of a marshmallow being so interesting.

  15. Makes sense. It's the same way people interact with life. Those who persevere end up receiving more later on down the road.

  16. cancuckess

    lol serg...that's bullox!
    she ate it promptly, got up, took her plate...done deal...she wasnt hanging around for any head trip that one! lol

  17. Jay

    Delaying Gratification, most adults cannot do this.

  18. Dreamer

    I once did something similar to this, where we had absolutely no idea how long it would be til we got another chocolate brownie...
    I knew that, if it was somewhere i could see it, or feel it, i wouldn't be able to resist it. But i had to have this chocolate brownie on my person...
    So, my idea? Put it in the rim of my hat. Gotta love a trilby that gets you chocolate brownies! :D

  19. QV

    Why were all the kids (seemingly) white? Not a representative sample. If that post is correct and this video is from one specific church, this is not a random sample of children. Also, the kids weren't told the exact same directions. It was still hilarious, but hardly scientific. I kind of want to try this with my nieces and nephews...

  20. Leah

    Fighting temptation, or bored out of their minds?
    If I was their age and trapped in a room with a marshmallow, I'd look pissed off and play with it too. And I hate marshmallows.

  21. As a child I probably would have taken the marshmallow... LOL!
    But now that I'm much older it's definitely easier to maintain self control and in the end, when you're self controlled the reward is greater.

  22. David

    Has anyone ever thought of the long term repercussions of such experimentation? Perhaps that failed the marshmallow test didn't fare as well later in life because their self-esteem was damaged by failing the test. That's why psychological experiments are unethical.

    • Sarah

      "That's why psychological experiments are unethical". Wow. What a hugely, hugely generalised statement. Obviously all psych test subjects go on to lead lives of corruption and tumultuous emotions. *eyeroll*

    • laura

      I don't think the children were ever told that they "failed" if they chose to eat the marshmellow right away. And im sure they didn't recieve a punishment for doing so. So I highly doubt their low level of self-control later in life has anything to do with 'damaged self-esteem' from the experiment.

  23. aileen

    i thought this was a good study....:) because..it is an example of what we have to grow up and do with our lives..if we want a better home..car...we have to save..although we don't want to...lol we would love to spend..before next pay day...will power..is learned in every aspects of our lives..that is only one example...and it was cute...

  24. Brittney

    I heard about this test in school. I have a 4 year old daughter now and I am curious on how the outcome would be ... I think what we were talking about in school was about positive reinforcement ... or something about how the child understood ...

  25. Eliana

    When you think about it, the little red-haired girl might have been kind of smart. What if she was like, "Oh, I'll just eat this marshmallow then go outside and ask Mommy and Daddy for some more"? Best of both worlds without the wait.

    Granted, none of them would be free, but it's more bang for the buck, depending on what you value.

  26. Rain

    I had an aversion to marshmallows as a child. I would've "passed" the self control concept with flying colors! Now, if she had sat some chocolate in front of me...

  27. red

    i would have passed that test....I don't like marshmallows...=P

  28. Dunkhan

    There is no marshmallow...

  29. Sara

    I have to agree with the folks saying that there may have been a sense of obeying authority going on here. While the kids were aware that either option was ok with the researcher - they would not get in trouble for choosing either option - the fact that one option came with a reward while the other didn't implies to the children that option 2 - waiting - is more desirable to the researcher.
    Also, at the end when she comes back into the room she asks the little boy if he did "good." Which again implies that choosing option 1 is not good.

    • Sara

      to add to this..

      The fact that there is a semblance of obeisance involved in the experiment tells me that perhaps the reason why, apparently, those children who chose to go with option 2 did better in the future than the children who chose option 1, is not because they are better able to plan for the future, but because they are more inclined to please their superiors. In a society like ours climbing the ladder of success, so to speak, involves a lot of having to suck it up and please your superiors until you get to the top. Doing things your own way, against the wishes of those above you, does not tend to get you very far, unless you are the superior from the start.

  30. Rei

    THE MARSHMALLOW IS A LIE!

  31. sjpen

    just how long were the children having to wait? having a specific time reference would be interesting.

  32. Emma

    thats the cutest thing ive seen in ages..
    the faces they pull are hilarious and i love how that little boys head snaps up at the end when the woman comes back with the extra marshmallow :)

  33. Rebekah

    i like watching the little kids faces, i liked how they all stayed in the chair and didnt even think about getting out. i should try this with my nephews, but that would be pure torture, lol!

  34. Seanfalloy

    I cant believe that they need research to figure out that people (kids) with foresight "do" better at life. Its quite apparent in daily life that those that those with patience usually have a happier and more fulfilled life.

    that said the kid are pretty funny to watch and it is a neat experiment

  35. Aaron

    What happens if the researcher did not give them a marshmallow for waiting? Or if they waited and the marshmallow they had original been offered, was taken away?

    What does one study prove?

  36. calibeep

    Exactly...what about trust issues? Do we implicitly trust authority? Or is it kind of like gambling to do so? If you eat the marshmallow you've got, you got one marshmallow for SURE as opposed to two MAYBE. Maybe that researcher will honor his promise...or maybe not. I only know I wish I had not been brought up to trust my teachers without question. I could have avoided some bad treatment. Maybe this creepy world needs kids to be more suspicious.

  37. This is too cute. I'm not sure how much weight to give the findings about the one's who waited being more successful as adults but it sure was fun watching them try....with the exception of the one little girl that was eating before the adult left the room...LOL

  38. S.

    I agree with most of the people here, the test was very flawed, they should have given us the amount of time it took for the reasearcher to come back,and the girl who ate it right away looked younger then most of them,they shouldn'tt have made option 2 sound favorable with the adult and they should have had a wider variety of races. Though the video itself was funny

  39. Brad

    The thing that most of you don't realize, and why you're calling it flawed, is it is just a quick over look of an experiment. Because of this, the posting of this article doesn't supply the specifics such as the selection method for the test subjects, the size of the subject group, the demographic, and social backgrounds of the tested group, the time frame, and how many times it was run. If you want to scrutinize, I suggest actually looking up the actual records of the experiment.

    By the way, as if it matters because it's just a quick over look and not the whole experiment like i mentioned. One explanation to the limited demographic social group chosen could be because of the measurement it's looking for. They were measuring success. The largest percentage of successful individuals comes from white males. Because of this fact, the testing group has to be one that is proportional to the society being tested.

  40. woody

    To all that gripe about how this experiment was done and all the blah about how you would do it and such. All this was set out to show was temptation, and that clearly shows that, and in funny to frustrating ways. Nice work miss!

  41. Derek

    They just wanted to videotape cute kids with marshmallows so they can sell the footage to the jet-puffed advertising department.

  42. Johnathan

    I, personally, prefer the crisp taste of Miller Lite.

  43. Michael

    This is just about compliance. Nothing more, nothing less. It interesting though they chose that you could eat the marshmallow now, or wait and get a second. In life is there not consequences to actions? punishment and reward are most definitely a part of the same spectrum. How different would it have been had they said: you can eat the marshmallow now and you'll have to wash your mouth out with soap or you can wait until I return and you can then have a second marshmallow. Eating one marshmallow is not that bad, especially since the smartest ones would most likely weigh the fact that they can have more marshmallows when they get home.

  44. Glen

    I see the point some are making in reference to acceptance of authority, however, I don't think that's what we are looking at in this case. Simply watching the children sniff,lick,or take small nibbles from the marshmallows indicates they were simlpy interested in the fact that they would receive a second marshmallow. If the one little boy was at all concerned about acceptance from the adult or what she would think,I don't believe he would have stuffed both marshmallows in his mouth as soon as he received the second. He simply wanted more.

  45. Glen

    As far as some of the children being more successful later in life; Suggests to me, that while they had to wait for the second marshmallow, they posses more patience. Which would explain why later in life they would be able to wait for better opportunities to come along. If they were to place an adult in the room n give them a slice of pizza, then tell them upon the researchers return they would receive a second slice if the first was not yet eaten; Don't you think they would simply asses how hungry they were and if they would need a second slice in order to fill there hunger ? Which posses a second question...How hungry were the children before they were left in the room with a single marshmallow ? Not to mention the fact that they were to sit at the table until the researcher's return. Sit there in a quiet,empty room with no other distractions. Try it some time at home for your self and see how long it would take you before you wanted to eat the marshmallow but have to wait for someone to return so you could receive a second.

  46. "The ones who passed the marshmellow test" - so the outcome is biased to a right/wrong answer.

    I am curious as to home environment was factored into the test - each child will have been influenced by home factors - some to "enjoy life in the moment" and others to "save for a rainy day" (perhaps not quite in those terms, but parental beliefs will have been imprinted at this age on an unconscious level) - so how can there be a "passing the marshmellow test" at all? If a person's belief structure is to enjoy life in the moment, and they fulfil that (perhaps not even wanting "a second marshmellow"), how can they have failed a test - they're acting in accordance to an internal set of values and meeting that internal set of values = "success"... A somewhat flaky 'test'...

  47. Robin F.

    I read about two of these studies....

    I would like to know how many of the kids who were unable to delay gratification (in both studies) were from working class and working poor backgrounds. To me, their inability to delay gratification would have more to do with their lack of food – could they have been hungry? There is the possibility that a poor child would not have a chance to have a snack given to them – parents may not buy it for them, may not have the money to purchase the treat, have to share with siblings, etc. so a treat given to them would be a greater temptation than one given to a middle class counterpart. Children from poor and working class backgrounds are also more likely to have had adults break promises – so they are more likely to not believe what a stranger tells them (that they will receive another marshmellow) so they eat it.

    If there were more poor and working class students who were unable to delay gratification, in the study, and more middle class students who were able to wait and receive two marshmallows then that also makes sense that they would be more successful later on in life. Studies have shown that the way middle class students are raised helps to almost ensure their success in school, work, and family life.

    Also, doesn't seem that a child who delays gratification (just to get one more marshmallow) is just a little bit greedy?

  48. allie

    I think the best age group for this would be in the range of the boy who they showed the most and getting his 2nd marshmallow with kids like him you could tell there was a real struggle not to eat it, and possibly finding ways to express their frustration with wanting to, but also wanting the 2nd one, by pretending to bite it, smelling it, taking tiny pieces off.

    The two girls, the blond and the red head really didn't seem to grasp it, as they didn't have as much response to the tester as the other children showing their concept of what was really going on didn't mean anything to them, they just saw the marshmallow and wanted it, impulse control is at its worst at that age, no reasoning and practicality of the possibility of getting another marshmallow, sure is a fun age to be at.

    I bet the older age group, put against the age group of 13-16 year olds would show that the younger of the two has more self control, but of course you'd have to replace the marshmallow with something in their range.

  49. Dcall

    It was interesting to see the one girl that ate it like an apple and left a core. Like it said, "they try to make things work for them". might as well find out.

  50. Hansel

    I wanted to see the other outcomes...both the almost eaten marshmallows and the completely eaten marshmallows. Did they feel any remorse? And what happened when they only ate a tiny chunk out of the marshmallow...

  51. Ryan

    this is a highly entertaining experiment, and may contain some inherent truths about authority, patience, and reward; however, I would "encourage" those who get off to these sort of psychological experiments to instead find different ways to make positive influences on science and discovery. something really bothers me about filming kids fighting internal battles over self constraint. this is G rated Saw, both make attempts to rationalize the human brain...both fail/pass depending on your opinion...both makers could have done better things with their time. how about i film and publish you deciding whether or not you should eat that triple chocolate cake 2 weeks before beach vacation.

  52. simmons

    that was absolutely adorable. :)

  53. Harry

    I thought this video was very good and interesting :) try it out on my nethu!

  54. Denny

    I think what's interesting in this is rather why two marsmallows would be considered better than one. Adults and children alike can have difficulty with patience and thats a lesson worth learning (I keep telling myself.), but the notion (If you really like marsmallows) that having two is better than one states that instead of enjoying every moment as it is in the now, if you live ahead with your mind in the future, you gain more things which would be equivalent to happiness. That's why I love the red-head girl. Not only does she enjoy her marsmallow, but when she's done she accepts the fact she isn't going to have another one (and seems fairly contempt with that, I may add :)) and gets ready to leave. She even cleans off the table! :)

  55. Cara

    First, To all of you who take the joy out of EVERYTHING by over thinking it have you ever heard the term weaned on a pickle?Please, keep this in perspective its a fun experiment that taps into our primal need to gratify our needs, whatever they may be to the individual. Second, It's the variety of responses that make this video poinient...we are all different and will respond to the same situation differently ...thats what makes us unique individuals. Success is subjective to the person experiencing it...the little red headed girls was successful in her own right just as the others were. What to do with info this experiment provides...use it to embrace and nurture people as individuals.

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