Mind Over Marshmallow

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The marshmallow test is a great example of how popular social science is amplified by popular culture. Experiments that measured young children’s willpower to hold out for that second marshmallow, first conducted in the 1960s, are still inspiring TV shows today.

On Sesame Street, Cookie Monster learned to dial back the munchies so he could join the “Cookie Connoisseur’s Club”—a win for delayed gratification! In response, Stephen Colbert ended up gorging on a bag of oversized marshmallows on air—a loss!

The press reports and also distorts. In an interview with the Atlantic, the marshmallow test’s architect, Walter Mischel, had to correct one large misconception spread by the media, YouTube videos, and even the hardcover version of his own book.

Researchers didn’t use those large marshmallows that are often pictured, he said, but rather “teeny, weeny pathetic miniature marshmallows.” Alternately, they used tiny pretzel sticks and colored poker chips that couldn’t be cashiered.

The junior test subjects understood that the physical rewards in themselves were no great shakes. “It’s not really about candy,” Mischel explained. “Many of the kids would bag their little treats to say, ‘Look what I did and how proud mom is going to be.’ The studies are about achievement situations and what influences a child to reach his or her choice.”

One marshmallow now, or two marshmallows up to twenty minutes from now. Your call, kid. Given that simple setup, it’s almost comical the lengths to which people have gone to poke holes in the famous Stanford experiment.

Critics have argued that the sample sizes were too small or too homogenous, or that children’s trust in authority was the thing really being measured. All of which, Mischel says politely, is balderdash.

Plenty of kids, from varied backgrounds, have been tested and followed up with as adults. The examiners first established a rapport with the kids and then laid all their marshmallows on the table, so the “trust in authorities” objection is unlikely.

The objection is also misplaced. The thing that the Stanford marshmallow test accurately captured was not just willpower but the will to willpower. Those kids who could resist the urge to eat the first marshmallow right away, when they were four or five with very short attention spans and not fully developed impulse controls, grew up to be adults with more self-control than their peers, which led to greater success.

But researchers found that the kids’ self-control was not necessarily innate. The kids who held out didn’t simply have iron wills. They developed strategies to just say wait. This discovery was very exciting to Mischel, who confesses to poor impulse control himself.

The great news from the marshmallow test is that it’s not pass/fail. With some self-awareness and practice, we can learn to wait for that marshmallow. And I say this from unfortunate personal experience.

Many moons ago, I was a small investor in a not-yet-launched comic book store. I quickly gobbled down that marshmallow when I exited the partnership early over a trifling matter. Big mistake. The store has gone on to generate millions of dollars in sales—in what would have been a ten- or twenty-fold (or more!) return on my original investment.

I didn’t treat that mistake as just dumb luck but rather as poor judgment on my part, and vowed to learn from it. So long as they were playing straight with me and the fundamentals seemed sound, I decided to be more patient with future business partners, clients, and so on, going forward. That second marshmallow mindset has since served me well.

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