The Marshmallow Test

IN THE 1960s Walter Mischel, then an up-and-coming researcher in psychology, devised a simple but ingenious experiment to study delayed gratification. It is now famously known as the marshmallow test. In a sparsely furnished room Mr Mischel presented a group of children aged four and five from Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School with a difficult challenge. They were left alone with a treat of their choosing, such as a marshmallow or a biscuit. They could help themselves at once, or receive a larger reward (two marshmallows or biscuits) if they managed to wait for up to 20 minutes.

The marshmallow test is often thought of simply as a measure of a child’s self-control. But Mischel shows that there is much more to it. One of Mr Mischel’s early studies in Trinidad suggests that a preference for delayed rewards also can be a matter of trust. Children who grow up with absent parents, Mr Mischel surmised, may be less likely to believe that they will actually get the promised delayed reward from the stranger who is carrying out the experiment. Indeed, he found that children with absent fathers, in particular, were prone to opt for immediate rewards. He believes the test also shows how the ability to postpone rewards is closely related to vigorously pursuing goals and to holding positive expectations. These traits, in turn, help explain why waiting for marshmallows at the age of five has such a strong relationship to outcomes in adult life.

from The Economist