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Why the ‘Marshmallow Test’ is one of the most fascinating studies on children

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If for some reason you’ve attended a child psychology lecture before, you’ll definitely have heard of the marshmallow test. Originally designed by Stanford University professor Walter Mischel in 1972, the results of this test continue to have an impact on our understanding of delay of gratification until today. 

What exactly is the test? 

A kid (around 4-5 years old) is placed in a room with one marshmallow in front of them. They are told that if they don’t eat the marshmallow until the researcher returns, they will get a second marshmallow. If they eat the marshmallow before the researcher returns, they don’t get another one. Essentially, kids who do not wait until the researchers return are demonstrating ‘instant gratification’. Those who wait until the researcher returns are demonstrating ‘delay of gratification’. 

  • Instant gratification: waiting less and eating one marshmallow
  • Delay of gratification: waiting longer and eating two marshmallows

 

Watch the experiment in action



The original results (1970s, 80s, 90s)

At the time, the results of the test were ground-breaking. Children who participated in the original experiment were tested again in the following months and years. Researchers found that those who waited longer to get a marshmallow also demonstrated: 

  1. 1. Greater resilience to stress 
  2. 2. Better academic performance (such as higher SAT scores)
  3. 3. Less behavioral and conduct problems

 

How do I teach my child ‘delay of gratification’? 

There is evidence that children can improve in the marshmallow test, which means that ‘delay of gratification’ can be taught.

  1. 1. Plan. If your child has a specific goal, create a plan with them. 
  2. 2. Prioritize. Once you have a plan, prioritize the steps from most important to least important. 
  3. 3. Positive self-talk. Have your child repeat positive affirmations out loud like “I am strong”, “I am worthy” and so on.
  4. 4. Celebrate. Acknowledge and celebrate your child’s accomplishments when they reach a goal.

 

The updated results

After years of replicating the study, researchers found many other variables that influenced the results. 

  1. 1. The trustworthiness of the adult. If the kids found the researcher to be untrustworthy (i.e. if they were caught lying), they were less likely to wait for a second marshmallow. 

  2. 2. Cooperation. If kids were cooperating with each other (i.e. if one of them ate it, both of them wouldn’t get another marshmallow), they were more

  3. 3. The ‘gratification’. Some kids just didn’t like marshmallows as much as others, which made it easier for them to wait. 

  4. 4. Culture and class. Delay of gratification is largely a middle-upper class value. Those living in poverty often don’t have a reason to delay gratification. 

 

So, what does this all mean?

While the original study opened the conversation to ‘delay of gratification’, we should take the results with a grain of salt. Just because your child at 4 years old can’t resist a marshmallow, it doesn’t mean they will be less successful in the future. It does however set the stage for teaching children the importance of self-regulation, planning, and flexible thinking. With that said, you can still try it at home for fun! 

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