The Ongoing Controversy Over the Marshmallow Test
The legendary psychological experiment measured self-discipline, but its findings are squishy
It has achieved legendary status as a psychology experiment, but for those who need a refresher: Around 50 years ago, the psychologist Walter Mischel and his colleagues at Stanford University began testing the patience of preschool children. The researchers asked the kids — who ranged in age from around three to six— to choose between two tempting snacks: a pretzel or a marshmallow. After each child chose their favorite (for example, the marshmallow), the researcher would make the child an offer: The researcher was leaving the room. If the child could wait until they returned, they could eat the marshmallow. If the child could not wait, they could ring a bell and the researcher would return early. But if that happened, the child would have to settle for a pretzel, rather than the preferable marshmallow.
The test is meant to measure self-discipline, and there have been several variations of the study performed over the years, including the most famous example of waiting for two marshmallows or settling for one. All of the variations assume the same basic premise: The longer children resist before ringing the bell, the stronger their ability to delay gratification in order to gain a larger reward in the future — arguably whether it’s minutes or years later.
Life is full of these kinds of choices in adulthood: decisions between saving or spending, exercising or relaxing, studying or partying. But could childhood performance in the marshmallow test predict success in later life? To answer this, Mischel united with his colleagues Yuichi Shoda and Philip Peake in 1988 to survey the parents of children who had taken part in the test 10 years earlier. The questions asked about the children’s academic performance, social skills, coping ability, and more. According to their results, the children who had waited the longest for their marshmallow a decade earlier had grown into adolescents who did better at school and in their social lives. This was evidence of childhood self-discipline predicting a healthy future, and it became a seminal study suggesting that a person’s willpower influenced their likelihood to succeed later in life.