Why The Marshmallow Test Does (Not) Predict Success

the marshmallow test

The Marshmallow Test (2014) is the story of the famous, same-name experiment on self-control. Walter Mischel, the author, also shares more information on the importance of self-control and delayed gratification on achieving personal success.

Bullet Summary

  • Children who were able to resist the urge of eating the treat showed higher concentration and scored higher on SATs
  • Self-control is genes, nurture and also context
  • We can increase our self-control with techniques and mind re-framing

Full Summary

The Marshmallow Test details the famous experiment involving children’s capacity to resist temptation. It then expands on the importance of delaying gratification and how we can improve our emotional intelligence to delay gratification.

The Marshmallow Test

This is how the marshmallow test worked:

The children would first pick their favorite treat. The researcher then would tell them they would leave the room and they could either have the treat now or enjoy it later once they’d come back.

The researcher also told the children they could call them back if they couldn’t wait any longer.
And then, they would leave them alone and observe.

Later in Life

Children who resisted for longer were better at concentrating as adults, scored higher on their SATs and were better at maintaining personal relationships.

The children who were able to resist showed more activation in their prefrontal cortex, while those who ate the marshmallow right away showed more activation in their ventral striatum, which is linked with pleasure and addiction.

Self Control VS Urges

We have two systems in our body and mind: one that instantly reacts to the environment -and wants to eat-. And one that controls and, if necessarily, restrains our behavior.

The author calls the former system “hot system” and the delaying strategies the “cold system”.

When we engage in activities that distract us from the stimuli, we are engaging the cooling system.

The hot system is ready to grow from birth, but the cooling system is only developed during childhood. And this is one of the reasons why very small children find it harder to resist: they haven’t developed cooling and coping mechanisms yet.
Children under four indeed usually don’t have any cooling systems. But the cooling system can keep developing until we’re adults.

Self-Control is Genes and Nurture

As for many other personal traits, self-control is partly genetic and partly environment.

For example the authors say that a parent can teach children distracting techniques by handing him a toy when he’s upset.

Self-Control is Also Contextual

But self control is also environmental. For example like of sexual restraint doesn’t necessarily mean that the same lack of control will be exhibited in different environments and situations.

However, here is the most interesting thing for me: if you think self-control is limitless you’ll be able to control yourself much better.
This is another great example of how our own beliefs shape our reality.

Teaching Children Self-Control

The authors have a few tips for teaching children self-control:

  • Reward effort (not outcome, as also recommended for a growth mindset)
  • Be consistent
  • Teach that actions have consequences (good actions lead to good results and vice versa)
  • Be a good role model
  • Teach them to always give their best
  • Teach “what if”: “if my hand moves towards the sugary food, then do X to distract yourself”

Personally, you can also:

  • Focus on the long term meaning and consequences
  • Distance yourself from the source of temptation

Criticism

As it’s been the case for lots of classic psychology experiments recently, the marshmallow test has received plenty of criticism.

The researchers were clear that a bigger sample size could reduce the link between delay of gratification and overall success in life.

And they were also clearly not advocating any policy changes because being able to delay gratification in children wouldn’t necessarily mean they would be more successful in life.

Yet the experiment has become so popular that, as it’s sometimes the case, it has taken on a whole different significance. Namely, that children who could control themselves were going to do great things in life and that children who could not control themselves were doomed.

Of course, reality is often slightly more complex than that.
Indeed, the original marshmallow experiment has several drawbacks, including:

  • Some children might obviously be less interested in sugary treats than others
  • Children in the tests were few
  • Children in the test were all from Stanford University: either children of professors or students
  • Poorer children might have a predisposition and drive to consume faster

Indeed, when the study was replicated, it was found that:

  • Success of marshmallow test at age 4 predicted success at age 14 with a correlation that was 50% smaller than the original test
  • Correlation almost vanished when taking into account for intelligence and family background

Tyler Watts, who replicated the test, sums it up as following:

Take two kids with same background, parenting, ethnicity, gender and cognitive ability and their ability to delay the marshmallow gratification matters little.

That means that the ability to delay gratification is not a unique lever but a consequence of a much bigger picture. And the second study shows that teaching children how to delay gratification might not have such a major impact on their lives.

You can read more here:

the marshmallow test

Real Life Applications

Engage Your Self Control
Bottom line is: working hard today for a better tomorrow is a great strategy for success. Start doing it.

Believe That Self-Control Empowers You
To increase self-control stat believing that self-control empowers you. Because, well… That’s true.

CONS

Tree for Forest Danger
The risk of taking a single experiment and generalizing to the explanation for success in life is that we mistake a tree for the forest.
Indeed, our capacity to engage in self-constraint is only an indicator of bigger cognitive abilities, sometimes dubbed emotional intelligence, which in turn are heavily influenced by context, background, family and parenting.

Too Long
Writing a book around what’s a relatively easy to explain test was almost bound to end up being long and with some fluff.

PROS

Some Good Ideas
There are definitely some good ideas and tips.

Important Message For Readers The Whole World Over
Many observers have said that that millennial and younger generations suffer from a major case of entitlement mentality. As a millennia myself, I see and feel the entitlement around me. A lot. And I welcome texts and researches like The Marshmallow Test because their message is loud and clear for everyone who’s willing to listen: to achieve success, you must work hard, work on yourself and give up on some immediate gratification.

Review

Like many other classical experiments, the marshmallow test has been torn apart recently by a big wave of criticism.

However, as I said before, I would caution not to throw away the baby with the bathwater. The ability to resist urges and temptations is a crucial factor for your level of success and fulfillment.

Bottom line is this: long term success often -almost always- requires some short term pain. And that’s the message I would invite you to take away from The Marshmallow Test: for a better tomorrow, learn to bite the bullet today.
And since you’re there, learn to enjoy the hard work that leads to success. Because when you learn that, the final success is only but the finally cherry: the journey will become its own reward.

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