NO!! Don’t eat the Marshmallow!!

Image courtesy of KYM McLEOD

It’s a kind of  torture

They’re gorgeously soft. Squishy, even.


Definitely mouthwatering.

And torturous. Oh yes, absolutely torturous. Especially when you’re only four years old and you know you really, really, ought not to take one…

But not the kind of torture when you’re at home and your parents have said you mustn’t because, if you do, they might perpetrate all kinds of parental tortures on you.

Nuh uh.

This is the kind of torture you get when you’re faced with a marshmallow you know you oughtn’t take and you’re sitting in the psychology lab at Stanford University with psychologist Walter Mischel. One of those special kinds of torture invented by psychologists.

Side note: Stanford is the University also famous for the extraordinary Stanford Prison Experiment run in 1971 by Phillip Zimbardo, and chronicled in his recent book. Happily, the children knew which experiment they were in…

The Marshmallow Test

It’s quite simple, really, Mischel tells the children. You  can see the yummy marshmallows on the plate. And indeed they can. Smell them, even.

And in a minute, Mischel continues, you’ll have two choices.

You can eat the marshmallow right away if you really want. Just think what goes through the child’s brain right then.

Oh the smell of it… breathe deeply. And the delicious taste and the feel of the marshmallow squashing between your teeth. You lick your lips.

There’s a little burst of dopamine in anticipation of the moment, a small press on the nervous system accelerator as your sympathetic nervous systems increases your heart rate a little, breathing a little, dilates your pupils, and can’t you just taste the marshmallow now, feel it in your mouth… Note if you’re salivating.

But then the torture.

I’ll step outside for just a few minutes Mischel says, and if you wait until I get back, then I’ll give you two marshmallows. That’s right, you can have this one and another one. Two marshmallows, just by waiting a little longer.

But if the torture is too much, you can just ring this here little bell and I’ll come straight back. But if you do that, well, you know, there will be only one marshmallow.

Such exquisite pain, no?

The pivot of the argument

It’s familiar, right? But it’s more than just the wrestle we have when we try to resist that bit of cake that our health, weight, diet and doctor would wag their finger at. And it’s not the same as trying to say no to placing that extra bet, or having another drink, or other substance issues. Similar yes, but more.

It had taken Mischel a while to get to this experiment, and what he wanted to do was to understand what happens in the crucible of this moment, and then to extrapolate what it means.

Particularly, while the torture might be interesting, it’s a question of can I wait now, for something better then. Can I put off the reward in favour of another. Can I defer the reward? Can I delay the gratification? And if so, so what?

It’s fascinating. In this case, the reward is assured so it’s a more straightforward argument of get some now or get more later. But on the flip side of the same coin, the question becomes one not of deferred reward, but risk analysis. Take what you’ve got or wait for the promise of something else… It’s the bird in the hand versus the two in the bush situation.

But for these kids, right now, in this moment, there is nothing else except the marshmallow. For these kids, the world shrinks. Everything is about the marshmallows. Vision narrows, thoughts narrow, marshmallows dominate.

What to do… what to do…

Tortured contortions of marshmallow avoidance

Some kids just got on up and ate the thing. Job done.

Some kids agonised for a moment, or even a minute, and then gobbled it down.

Some tore their gaze only to find the power of the marshmallow more than they thought, and their gaze was dragged back. They fought its power. They lost.

But some, a few, did anything they could to avoid eating it. Walking away. Singing. Closing their eyes. Playing with something else. And it was these kids that ended up with two marshmallows.

Mischel was interested in what the kids did, by which he might better understand the processes and steps we go through that means some people will delay gratification and others will just get on in there.

All good. Published a few studies. Nice.

The real outcome

But then he began to notice other things over time. How come the kids who couldn’t delay, seemed to end up in more trouble. Their grades were worse and they seemed not to handle stress at all well.

By contrast, those kids who could delay, were the opposite. They achieved well, were well-adjusted, and scored well on tests. Additionally, they seemed better able to cope with life.

What was going on? This needed more study. It needed follow-up with the more than 650 kids who’d eaten marshmallows.

The follow-up

At its heart, this was an exercise in self-control. And what Mischel discovered, is that the kids who could find a way to not eat that marshmallow, had managed, in his words, to strategically allocate their attention. In other words, they didn’t think about the marshmallow, but directed their attention anywhere except the marshmallow.

You could call it distraction, you could call it ignoring, you could call it something else.

But this ability proved the difference and, although these were preschoolers then, it remained relatively constant through to adulthood.

It was the same ability that meant they could study for exams rather than go to a party, or stick with a task for longer knowing that the payoff would be greater than the immediate reward of something else now. Defer the reward, focus on something else, and stick with it.

So here’s the take home bit

Some would claim that Mischel’s intent to generate a simple but powerfully predictive experiment went a little far on the simple side. A kid. A marshmallow. A test.

Does that really predict future success, ability to handle stress and the capacity to defer rewards? So it seems.

Even though the whole world was reduced to that moment and all that existed was them and the marshmallow, and we know that real life as adults can be a bunch more complicated than that, there’s still merit.

For sure, we need to consider broader aspects of context and motivation. But what this experiment does point to are some critical factors in Emotional Intelligence. Self control, and the ability to self-regulate, and key components of emotional intelligence. More on that next time.

The benefit for us, is that teaching kids ways to overcome immediate gratification is worth it, even if it costs you two marshmallows when you return.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Strategic allocation of attention. Try this on your boss next time you’re caught snoozing at work.

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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