The Marshmallow Test (aka Meat Before Pudding, aka The Cake Is A Lie)

The Marshmallow Test is another one of those colorful psychological experiments from Stanford University from the late 1960s / early 1970’s,  which illuminates our understanding of the psychology of human beings, and how we behave under different conditions. 

This diabolical test pits a four-year-old child against a marshmallow:  The child’s goal is to sit in front of the marshmallow, unattended, for up to 20 minutes… an eternity from the child’s perspective.  If the child can hold out against temptation, they get a second marshmallow.  

(hat tip to Shira I / Anne S)

The original experiment and its results have been replicated numerous times, across different ethnic and socioeconomic groups. The guy who designed the original experiment, Walter Mischel,  explained that the original purpose of the study was to identify the mental processes that allowed some people to delay gratification.”   

marshmallowsBottom line:   The kids who were able to resist eating the marshmallow were the ones who deliberately shifted their focus away from the marshmallow.  This technique is called metacognition, which is a way to self-manage the contents of one’s working memory.

As the old Spanish saying goes, “lo que resiste…  persiste.” 

 If you’re interested in learning more about this, check out this great New Yorker article about the Marshmallow Test.  Unable to sit through a whole 20 minute marshma-I mean-New Yorker article?   Ok, I’ve also pasted a brief excerpted from the article, at the end of this post.   Or you can just go ahead and post your comments, below. 

 Now, for those of you still reading this and hungry for more, let’s take a look at three important lessons / counter-points to The Marshmallow Test:

  1. The Marshmallow Test as a Predictor of Success in Life
  2. The Marshmallow Test as a “Just Another Brick In The Wall”
  3. The Marshmallow Cake is a Lie

1.  The Marshmallow Test as a Predictor of Success in Life

Although the experiment is qualitative in nature (it answers the question, “what kinds of strategies are these kids using to resist their urges?”),  it’s the quantitative result (“how long did these kids hold out?”) is what has gotten most attention from the general public. 

The result:  Most kids last less than three minutes.  Also:  Only a third of all kids are able to wait the full 20 minutes.

More than that, what really gets the public attention is the claim, fifteen years after the original study, that a child’s ability to pass the Marshmallow Test is highly predictive of their later success in life, measured by multiple standards of achievement, including academic, professional, mental, and physical.  

“Whoa there!”  you exclaim.  “Predictive” is one of those scientific jargon terms that send a confusing message. “Highly predictive” sounds like it’s implying something more than “highly correlated,”  doesn’t it?  As we know from the first rule of statistics, correlation does not equal causation.   

However, before we investigate that claim / tear it to shreds, it’s important to step back and take note :  As a cultural meme, the Marshallow Test has gone from an analysis of how to delay gratification (short answer: “Place your mental focus on something other than the object of desire.”), to becoming a polemic against poor impulse control ( “Just Say No!” ).

As I watch the videos of people re-enacting the Marshmallow Test,  I can’t help but wonder:  So much of early education is, in fact, teaching about resisting the proverbial marshmallow, and instilling a sense of self-control and discipline.  Yet, we know that somehow all this teaching is largely ineffective. 

We know the teaching is largely ineffective based on the vast numbers of educated people who either (a) don’t have the self-control to resist the “bad” marshmallows(aka addictions, distractions, or other opportunity-limiting choices), or (b) have a lack of initiative to immediately grab “good” marshmallows (aka those limited-time opportunities which require prompt action ) when presented in front of them.  

Which leads us to the second lesson / counter-point…

2. The Marshmallow Test as a “Just Another Brick In The Wall”

If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding!   HOW CAN YOU HAVE ANY PUDDING IF YOU DON’T EAT YOUR MEAT??”  – Pink Floyd, The Wall

Here’s a theory, based on some direct observations of  clients that I’ve been lucky enough to work with… some really smart and capable people working for great companies:   Most organizations seems to host a large number of people who may not be the “top performers,”  but who are nevertheless very talented, well-educated and disciplined — disciplined in the sense that they are able to resist all kinds of marshmallowy temptations.  Yet there is something that holds these folks back from achieving their goals and highest potential. 

staypuft-marshmallow-manThey have been so beaten down into submission by fear-based learning, that when presented with a marshmallow, their immediate reaction is to hesitate.    As a result, they often need coaching, self-motivational training, and other forms of personal development, to help them to overcome their paralyzing tendencies, pursue their aspirations and achieve their “stretch” goals.  (I’ve always felt that the educational system provides the single greatest boost for the business I’m in…)   

This marshmallow test supposedly “predicts” success in life… yet so often we see that the successful people — the winners — are ones who grab the opportunity in front of them.  If this test is truly measuring some durable personality trait in these kids, is that trait only “self control” or is it”  “restraint,” “hesitation,” “indecision” or “fear?”   Are those really the factors that lead to successful life?

Also, I wonder to what extent the experiment is a kind of formative experience in and of itself, and whether by passing or failing the test, a child’s behavioral tendencies gets reinforced.   There is a bit of the Heisenberg Uncertainly Principle / Observer Effect going on here:   The measurement of self-control necessarily disturbs a person’s self-control.

Finally, there is lesson / counter-point number three:

3. The Marshmallow Cake is a Lie

The Cake Is A Lie!   – Portal

The principle of delayed gratification works only to the extent that the person is convinced of the value of the reward — and the delay. 

In the video at the top of this post, what about the little red-headed girl (3 minutes, 6 seconds)  who eats the marshmallow before the experimenter even finishes talking?   

“ can eat it now or have another one when I come bac– *chomp* *chomp*” 

 I think there’s are some easy arguments to be made in favor of the red-head’s strategy:

1) She’s getting her 1 marshmallow in 5 seconds and moving on with her life.  The other kids gets 2 marshmallows after 20 minutes… yes, 100% more return on marshmallow investment, but over 20,000% the amount of time.  So with her innate sense of Net Present Value and Hyperbolic Discounting , I’d say this girl has a successful career on Wall Street ahead of her.

 2) If you consider the Marshmallow Test in terms of the Risk-Adjusted Returns on Investment (like maybe something will happen to the marshmallow or to the room the meantime, or maybe these adults are playing weird mind games) …. well, the red-headed girl is waaaaay ahead.  A marshmallow in the hand is worth two in the thorny bush of lies promulgated by manipulative adults

Besides, here is where a typical four-year-old child is at, in terms of their reasoning abilities: you really expect them to set aside their hyperbolic discounting and wait for two marshmallows???, add to this the effects of Negative Suggestion (aka the “Don’t Touch the Red Button!” effect ):

(view in YouTube:

So at the end, I have a hard time reconciling the first claim of this experiment — that self-control is a simply a matter of learnable behaviors involving metacognition — with the other claim — that it’s a predictive test.   The choice of subject — a four-year-old kid who is at Piaget Level 2 — makes sense. As Dr. Mischel notes, these kids are still working out the rules of thinking.  So they make a great choice for observing and learning about how people wrestle with their own cognition.

And learning from children is always a good thing. 

 Excerpts from:

What, then, determined self-control? Mischel’s conclusion, based on hundreds of hours of observation, was that the crucial skill was the “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. “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”

In adults, this skill is often referred to as metacognition, or thinking about thinking, and it’s what allows people to outsmart their shortcomings. (When Odysseus had himself tied to the ship’s mast, he was using some of the skills of metacognition: knowing he wouldn’t be able to resist the Sirens’ song, he made it impossible to give in.) Mischel’s large data set from various studies allowed him to see that children with a more accurate understanding of the workings of self-control were better able to delay gratification. “What’s interesting about four-year-olds is that they’re just figuring out the rules of thinking,” Mischel says. “The kids who couldn’t delay would often have the rules backwards. They would think that the best way to resist the marshmallow is to stare right at it, to keep a close eye on the goal. But that’s a terrible idea. If you do that, you’re going to ring the bell before I leave the room.”

According to Mischel, this view of will power also helps explain why the marshmallow task is such a powerfully predictive test. “If you can deal with hot emotions, then you can study for the S.A.T. instead of watching television,” Mischel says. “And you can save more money for retirement. It’s not just about marshmallows.”


But Mischel has found a shortcut. When he and his colleagues taught children a simple set of mental tricks—such as pretending that the candy is only a picture, surrounded by an imaginary frame—he dramatically improved their self-control. The kids who hadn’t been able to wait sixty seconds could now wait fifteen minutes. “All I’ve done is given them some tips from their mental user manual,” Mischel says. “Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.”



About danspira

My blog is at: My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on November 10, 2009, in Learning. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Just read this in an appreciation for a great Eng/Com Lit prof at Columbia who died on Sunday, Karl Kroeber. It made me think of your post:

    “Kroeber’s teaching was shaped in equal measure by his belief in the necessity for spontaneous action. The best choices, he believed, are often made by those who act impulsively, those who do not allow their fears, insecurities, or inhibitions to taint their decision-making. To some degree, at least, Kroeber’s fondness for impulsiveness reflected his conviction that modern education systems have dampened the ability of people to behave capriciously. Indeed, one of Kroeber’s accomplishments was to show his students the possibility of a particular mode of living, one that emphasizes impulsiveness over brooding, exuberance over anxiety, and compassion over suspicion.”
    see the whole article at

  2. One of the other problems with the Marshmallow Test as a way to “teach” delayed gratification (as opposed to merely serve as a platform for observing behavioral strategies, as it was originally intended) is that it presents an arbitrary reward for completing the task.

    If the Marshmallow Test was more analogous to “don’t eat this seed, because if you wait 15 minutes, it will grow into a plant which then flowers and produces 1000 seeds” …now THAT would be a powerful lesson in delayed gratification.

    The second marshmallow is not a natural consequence of the first marshmallow — rather, the second marshmallow is the result of the discretionary powers of an authority figure.

    A friend (D. Spitzberg) just shared a grant application that he wrote, related to this subject. Here’s an excerpt:

    “Properly designed prizes provide distinct advantages in motivating students, specifically because they reward results that come after the student performs well and because they reinforce patterns of behavior.

    Creating prizes (…) is an exciting challenge that will involve school teachers, administrators, and students. It will open an inclusive dialogue that asks questions about what motivates students to concentrate on their education and on their futures.”

    The best rewards are in the work itself.

  1. Pingback: Desirable Difficulties: A Discussion « Meme Menagerie

Leave a Reply -- for humans only, no spambots

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: