The Marshmallow Test: How 4-year-olds Can Help Elucidate Willpower
    By Becky Jungbauer | April 6th 2009 11:26 AM | 9 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Becky

    A scientist and journalist by training, I enjoy all things science, especially science-related humor. My column title is a throwback to Jane


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    Update: check out this YouTube video - about 2:55 in, the cute kid videos start.

    Can you increase your willpower? Can high levels of willpower lead to greater success in life?

    Columbia University psychologist Walter Mischel says yes. In the 1960s, Mischel used hundreds of 4-year-olds to answer these questions in what is now referred to as the marshmallow test.

    The ability to wait for gratification is considered a personality trait important for success later in life, and may even be a component of emotional intelligence. Those without this personality trait need their gratification instantly and suffer from poor impulse control.

    Mischel put a 4-year-old in a room alone with a marshmallow on a table and told the child he was going to leave the room. The child then had two options: one, eat the marshmallow immediately (indicative of poor impulse control, or low levels of willpower), or two, wait until he returned (indicative of good impulse control, or high levels of will power), and receive an additional marshmallow as a reward.

    As you might imagine, some of the kids gobbled up the marshmallow right away. Some actually waited for Mischel to return. Mischel says the videotapes of the children alone in the room with the marshmallow demonstrate two common ways to resist an impulse - and which one could actually be used to help children and adults improve their willpower. Using these strategies could be a powerful tool in helping addicts resist temptation.


    What were the two strategies? One, distraction - kids squirmed, sang songs, counted out loud, and many other variations on this theme, according to the NPR interview. Mischel said this is a perfectly acceptable way to resist temptation - distract yourself, and shift attention away from the tempting situation.

    Two, change the way you think about the temptation. Mischel called this thinking about the temptation in a "cold, cognitive" way. People often respond to temptations emotionally, or in a "hot" way. Marshmallow = delicious morsel, feelings of pleasure. But if you can train yourself to think about a temptation in a cold cognitive way, you can resist it. Mischel told the children to visualize the marshmallow as a cotton puff or cloud - and it worked. The children could wait longer. For an adult, perhaps visualizing the long-term consequences of his/her actions - lung cancer, money, secondary health effects on their children - may delay the desire for a cigarette, for example, and help a person quit smoking.

    Long-term outcomes

    The original sample of children were followed, and the results were clear: children with better impulse control were more successful in life: higher SAT scores, enrollment in better colleges, were more dependable (survey of parents and teachers). Children who couldn't delay gratification were more likely to become bullies, had worse parent/teacher evaluations, and even were more likely to have drug problems when surveyed at age 32.

    A 2006 article in the San Francisco Chronicle suggested these results should be considered by policymakers when they are trying to work through issues like improving education and reducing poverty. "Somehow we've entered a world in which we obsess over structural reforms and standardized tests, but skirt around the moral and psychological traits that are at the heart of actual success," David Brooks writes.

    You can increase your willpower, and there are a number of methods out there (if you have the willpower to find them). While many focus on mental exercises, one study even suggested physical exercise could help.

    Want to know the strategies you take to seek gratification? Check out this survey by the Central Michigan University Psychology Department - learn about yourself, help science, and maybe even win $100!


    Becky: that small child in the photo is a poor example of the willpower concept.

    He isn't drooling over the goodies.  He's thinking of what happens when you push a marshmallow through a metal grid.  He's not impatient for candies or cookies - he's impatient for the Nobel prize in physics.
    Becky Jungbauer

    I was going to use a photo of me when in the general vicinity of brownies, but it looks rather like a national geographic special with lions/antelope, so I went for a stock photo. I'll do better next time, I promise. :)

    It's a nice photo.  :)  But coming from an engineering background, I was focused on the grill.

    Perhaps I have physics on the brain.  You can do a lot of physics with marshmallows.
    Folks - 1. The picture has cookies, not marshmallows.
    2. It's a cooling rack.

    Do you know what happens when you try to push cookies through a cooling rack? Lots of crumbs.

    This is the problem when non-scientists read science articles; they get all practical and common sense-ish.  Sure, those are marshmallows, they are just higher order and out of phase from other marshmallows.

    He must be an engineer.
    Becky Jungbauer
    I picked the photo for the kid's face, and because I'd drool over cookies before marshmallows (unless said marshmallows were toasted uniformly golden brown and smooshed between graham squares and chocolate).
    I have a mini oven-grill in which, what you decribe as a cooling rack, is a simple wire frame with parallel wire bars.  Now, you may wish to call that a cooling rack.  In which case, I keep all my butter, bread and fresh produce in an oven on grilles - or should that be griddles?  Grid irons?  Heck! You have me all confused.

    Oh, by the way, please read my comment above: " He's not impatient for candies or cookies".
    So that's 50% mark-down for starters.  :)
    OK!  This was a science article about marshmallows, so let me go back to physics 101.

    Under ideal conditions, when a marshmallow softens enough to flow through the wire bars of a parrot cage[1] it reforms[2] on the other side.  When ice does that it's called regelation and is not considered remarkable.

    Query:  what do we call it when a photon or quantum particle does the same thing?

    Answers on a billion dollar cheque to ...

    [1] or any similar containment structure for any like avian species.
    [2]  there is no known case where the reforming effect has been observed in the case of a felon.
    Becky Jungbauer
    Counter-query: are you starting a joke, or trying to solve a puzzle? Either way, this is really bothering me! The first inclination was light i.e. wave/particle duality. You could extend this to its logical corollary, Schroedinger's Cat.
    Sorry, Becky.   I should not have mixed joke with query.

    I am merely speculating, and asking a general question about wave/particle duality and possible analogies to the way substances like ice, some gelatinous substances etc tend to reform somewhat after passing through a wire grid.   Think of Terminator 2 where T2 passes through the bars of a door.  I'm wondering how far the 2-slit experimental model might be stretched.  3-slits?  n-slits?  Diffraction gratings?

    Is there a way to distinguish a single electron acting as if it had passed through two or more slits at once from an actuality of such behaviour?  Could a single electron act like a marshmallow or ice cube?

    I am quite grateful that your mention of marshmallows jogged this old memory of mine.  :)
    Oh, yes.  The cat.  Look, no way am I going to try pushing that through ...