the future

What the Marshmallow Test Really Teaches About Self-Control

One of the most influential modern psychologists, Walter Mischel, addresses misconceptions about his study, and discusses how both adults and kids can master willpower.

Published on Dec 14, 2012
Silvia Helena Barcellos is an Associate Economist at RAND Corporation, Santa Monica Office. Her research focuses on applied microeconomics topics in labor and development economics. Her labor economics research includes works on the economic causes and consequences of immigration to the United States and on the effects of taxation on location and organizational choices of firms and individuals. In research on development economics, Barcellos has investigated the existence of gender discrimination in parental time investments in India.

The Stanford marshmallow experiment[1] was a series of studies on delayed gratification in the late 1960s and early 1970s led by psychologist Walter Mischel, then a professor at Stanford University. In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately or two small rewards (i.e., a larger later reward) if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned. (The reward was sometimes a marshmallow, but often a cookie or apretzel.) In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores,[2] educational attainment,[3] body mass index (BMI),[4] and other life measures.[5]

The experiment has its roots in an earlier one performed in Trinidad, where Mischel noticed that the different ethnic groups living on the island had contrasting stereotypes about one another, specifically the other’s perceived recklessness, self-control, and ability to have fun.[6] This small (n= 53) study focused on male and female children aged 7 to 9 (35Black and 18 East Indian) in a rural Trinidad school. The children were required to indicate a choice between receiving a 1¢ candy immediately, or having a (preferable) 10¢ candy given to them in one week’s time. Mischel reported a significant ethnic difference, with Indian children showing far more ability to delay gratification as compared to African students, as well as large age differences, and that “Comparison of the ‘high’ versus ‘low’ socioeconomic groups on the experimental choice did not yield a significant difference”.[6] Absence of the father was prevalent in the African-descent group (occurring only once in the East Indian group), and this variable showed the strongest link to delay of gratification, with children from intact families showing superior ability to delay.

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