Don’t Eat That Marshmallow Or You’ll Hurt Your S.A.T. Scores!

Setting:  Our family computer

Stephen (12): “I want to show you something awesome Ben taught me to do on Google Earth!”

Daniel (10): “I got here first! I want to watch that YouTube video Colin sent me!”

Annie (7): “Well, I need to check the weather!” (This is the only thing we allow Annie to do by herself on our computer.)

Waiting.  Self-control.  Patience.  Delaying gratification.  Mastering these challenging skills remains a work in progress at our house.

When I was reminded recently of the famous Marshmallow Experiment, I re-read it with interest (and a little desperation) because it suggests there are particular mind games that kids (and the rest of us) can play to increase self-control significantly.

The Marshmallow Study

In the late 1960s, a now well-known psychologist named Walter Mischel brought 4 year-olds to a small office within their preschool. The windowless room didn’t have much going for it from a 4 year-old’s standpoint–no bright-colored toys or books. However, in the center of the barren room was a desk with a tray of goodies of approximately equal size and desirability. The treats included marshmallows, Oreos, and pretzels, but over time this study has become referred to merely as the Marshmallow Study.

As part of the study, Mischel told each child that he or she could pick ONE treat to eat right then, or wait while he (Mischel) left the room for a time, and receive TWO treats when he returned. Then Mischel exited, and the 4 year-olds were left to their own devices, while being filmed by a hidden camera. He didn’t return for 15 minutes!

Before you read on, think back to yourself as a young child and envision what you would have done. Now consider your children. If you’re like me you came up with perhaps one candidate who might have pulled off the wait.

All in all, 653 four year-olds participated in the Marshmallow Study. The majority of the children waited less than 3 minutes before giving in and eating the object of their desire. Only 30% of the kids held out the entire 15 minutes and received 2 marshmallows.

The New Yorker (May 18, 2009) wrote about this study, interviewing Mischel and some of the research participants. The article depicted a range of precious images caught on tape as the kids attempted to delay gratification. Some kicked the desk which held the treats. Others covered their eyes or pulled their own hair. One stroked the marshmallow as if it were a pet, and some sang songs to themselves.

Mischel was able to collect further data on most of these children again much later in their lives. Who would have guessed that 4 year-olds who delayed gratification would get higher S.A.T. scores years later?

Mischel later wrote a book, The Marshmallow Test, explaining that his study showed that the children who could wait the whole 15 minutes had S.A.T. scores on average 210 points higher than children who could only wait 30 seconds. Wow. Not that high S.A.T. scores tell it all, but that’s a noteworthy result.

Basically the Mischel’s Marshmallow Study highlighted the importance of self-control or will power as a component of intelligence, at least the type of intelligence measured by aptitude tests.

In the New Yorker article, Mischel explained his understanding of the study’s results. The vital skill the patient kids had was the “strategic allocation of attention.” Turns out they’d found ways to distract themselves from the “hot stimulus” or marshmallow. This view of will power explains why the marshmallow test has relatively high predictability for future success. If you can distract yourself from “hot emotions, then you can study for the S.A.T. instead of watching television, and you can save money for retirement” rather than spending it now, Mischel explains.

Of course I asked my kids to pretend they were in this situation.  Here’s what I got:

Annie (age 7): “I’d put a piece of paper between me and the marshmallow.” After thinking about it some more she then said, “No, I’d stare at it as hard as I could.”

Daniel (age 10): “I’d play hand games. Then I’d look out the window, and then I’d make up some more games to pass the time.”

Stephen (age 12): “Mama, I’m so not in the mood to answer this.”

Thus, I have one child who would have likely scored with the majority, another child who might have succeeded in waiting, except that being his mother I know how much he likes sweets. So, I’m going to have to stick him into the majority group as well. And I’ve got yet another kid who likely could have met the challenge, but is now in middle school and therefore is completely uninterested in this sort of thing.

When it comes to sweets in our house, my kids will tell you that the answer to the question “Who stole the cookie from the cookie jar?” is almost always “Mama.” That will help you decide where I likely would have landed in the Marshmallow Study. But Todd’s always been more of a patient, salty-snacks guy. I’m thinking he might have been our family’s only chance for success on the marshmallow test.

But there’s hope…

What Mischel realized was that if he showed the children a few mental games, their ability to delay gratification shot way up. For example, he taught the kids to “pretend the treat [was] only a picture surrounded by a frame” and other techniques which helped them keep some distance from their desired object.

Mischel recommends that parents establish “rituals of delay” at home such as “not snacking before dinner, saving allowance, and holding out until Christmas morning.” However, it’s also essential to discuss with your kids what tricks they have found helpful for waiting, as a way of making these mental processes more visible. This way they will remember later that they have some skills that can help them wait.

Now I need to find a gentle way to inform Annie that her idea to “stare at the marshmallow until the guy came back” is likely not an optimal choice when it comes to postponing the intake of life’s future marshmallows.


The Marshmallow Study reminded me of a somewhat similar documentary film series that Todd and I were quite addicted to a few years back, called  The Up Series. In 1964 a British documentarian selected 14 seven year-olds from a range of socio-economic backgrounds in England and interviewed them at length. The success of this initial film, 7 Up, led to subsequent films of the same children every seven years and on into adulthood. I believe they are currently filming 56 Up.

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5 Responses to Don’t Eat That Marshmallow Or You’ll Hurt Your S.A.T. Scores!

  1. deirdre says:

    Fascinating. I’d never heard of the marshmallow study. It seems as if even some of us adults could use some contemplation before gratification, including moi! Thanks for the good ideas.

  2. Love this post! I haven’t searched, but imagine that there are some of these videos on, if folks want a sweet laugh. The images of these kids grappling with their urges is precious!
    It seems that more and more, we are thinking of the ability to direct attention as an important skill. I love the idea of actively teaching kids that they have a choice about where to put their attention, and giving them some models of what that may look like…Time to get out the marshmallows and do a little practicing!!!
    Thanks, as always, for an entertaining and thought-provoking post.–Catie

  3. Emilie says:

    I love the Marshmallow study. Though I agree that those with the salty snack gene have an unfair advantage over those of us with a sweet tooth. I wonder if mixed nuts eaters are generally more successful in life? 😉

    NPR had a very interesting story a couple of years ago about children and self-regulation. One of the things they reported is that kids ability to self-regulate has diminished over the years. They were hypothesizing that it’s related to play. Here’s a link to the story and a quote from the story:

    “We know that children’s capacity for self-regulation has diminished. A recent study replicated a study of self-regulation first done in the late 1940s, in which psychological researchers asked kids ages 3, 5 and 7 to do a number of exercises. One of those exercises included standing perfectly still without moving. The 3-year-olds couldn’t stand still at all, the 5-year-olds could do it for about three minutes, and the 7-year-olds could stand pretty much as long as the researchers asked. In 2001, researchers repeated this experiment. But, psychologist Elena Bodrova at Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning says, the results were very different.

    “Today’s 5-year-olds were acting at the level of 3-year-olds 60 years ago, and today’s 7-year-olds were barely approaching the level of a 5-year-old 60 years ago,” Bodrova explains. “So the results were very sad.”

    • Thanks so much for this comment. I just listened to the NPR story on kids’ imagination and it’s great! In it they interview Elena Bodrova who works in Denver and co-created the preschool and kindergarten Tools of the Mind curriculum which research shows improves self-regulation and executive functioning in young kids. I wrote about this program in my “Spiderman and Mountain Goats” post about a month ago.

      Now I need to go make sure my kids are involved in imaginative play…

  4. While I don’t disagree with the intent of the study, the authors of NurtureShock found that the study was fundamentally flawed for several reasons. Have you read that? If I remember correctly, there was not any way to be sure the parents hadn’t promised their children a prize for later if they would just not eat the marshmallow and I think he didn’t follow up with very many children — something like less than 100.

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