Waiting for Marshmallows

In the 1960s, Stanford University pyschologist Michael Mischel conducted the famous ‘marshmallow study’ demonstrating a correlation between a child’s ability to delay immediate gratification and that same child to achieve positive education and health outcomes later in life.  Is this study truly a ground-breaking conduit to research on self-control, or is it all just fluff? 

In the study, four-year-olds were given one marshmallow, and told they could either eat it now, or wait until the experimenter returned from an errand and have 2 marshmallows.  About 1/3 of the children successfully waited to eat the marshmallow and were rewarded with a second marshmallow.  Decades later, Mischel found astounding results. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, 210 points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds. Similarly, the children who waited had on average lower body mass index, and were more self-motivating.  Then even more decades later, the children that waited had higher incomes, greater career satisfaction, better health, and a higher rate of successful marriages.

Here is a cute video of the study being replicated:

In the New Yorker piece on the marshmallow study, Mischel defined the key skill of the 4-year-olds that waited as “strategic allocation of attention.” Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow—the “hot stimulus”—the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from “Sesame Street.” Their desire wasn’t defeated—it was merely forgotten. This translated later in life to similar attention issues.  If you can overcome the “hot stimulus” distraction, you can study for the S.A.T. instead of watching television.  Or you can save more money for retirement instead of spending it immediately.

Mischel’s latest follow-up with the marshmallow kids has been inviting them back to Stanford to take fMRI’s in order to identify the crucial neural circuits that distinguish the delayers from the non-delayers.  Identifying these underlying neurological mechanisms could help with a more effective treatment design for attention deficit disorder, ADHD, and OCD.

My question to you is — Should we be optimistic about the marshmallow study’s potential to address critical health problems related to attention and self-control?  Or, should we be critical of its metholodology and validity?


About Pamela Sud

Pamela Sud is currently a joint MPP/MBA degree candidate at Harvard Business School/Harvard Kennedy School.
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3 Responses to Waiting for Marshmallows

  1. Debra says:

    Hi Pamela,

    We would like to use the picture you have of the little girl looking at marshmallow in a book and wondered wheteher you owned it or know who does? If you could point us in the rightdirection, it would be a great help.

    I look forward to hearing from you.
    Kind regards

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