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When it comes to the best ways to raise kids, there are scads of so-called “experts”. These people are more than willing to give us their two sense about how to turn kids into successful adults. And because parenting is so stressful and we feel such a strong sense of responsibility for how our kids turn out, we’re willing to do almost anything to give them an edge over their peers when it comes to developing the skills they need to get ahead.
Baby sign language? Check
Baby Einstein books? Yup.
In fact, we’ve even taken things to the next level. We now try to set them up for success before they’re even born.
Did you read to your baby in the womb? We did.
How about singing to your munchkin in utero? Uh huh. (Now sure, it was Justin Bieber and not Mozart, but it all counts, right?)
While maybe initially rooted in research, most of these strategies have the distinct feel of pop science. But when it comes to “hard scientific experiments, few have captured parents’ attention more than the famed marshmallow test designed to measure delayed gratification.
Definition of Delayed Gratification
At its simplest, delayed gratification is the ability to engage in a less preferable activity now to enjoy a more preferable activity or the benefits of the less preferable activity further down the road. It’s the opposite of instant gratification, which is the desire to experience pleasure and joy right now, without having to wait.
What is an Example of Delayed Gratification?
A simple example of delayed gratification would be not sleeping in in the morning and getting up to work out (the less preferable activity) to enjoy good health, a positive self-image, and many of the other benefits of regular exercise down the road.
An example of ignoring delayed gratification would be going out with friends the night before a test (engaging in a more preferable activity in the short-term) instead of staying home to study (which would allow you to do better on the test, get better grades and eventually land a better job with higher pay and more perks).
It was this ability to delay gratification and how it developed in kids that was the subject of the marshmallow test.
What is the Purpose of the Marshmallow Test?
In order to study how delayed gratification developed, during the 1960’s and 70’s Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel and his colleagues carried out a series of ingenious experiments where children ranging in age from 3-6 were introduced to a researcher who first took them through a series of activities designed to build the child’s belief that the researcher was trustworthy.
Once trust had been established, the kids were taken by the researcher into a room, absent of any distractions or furniture except a table with some chairs and a bell on it. The child was then presented with a simple choice: the researcher was going to leave the room. The child could choose to ring the bell and the researcher would come back in and give a single marshmallow to the child (or Oreo, pretzel, or treat of their choice). Or, the child could wait 15 minutes for the researcher to return on their own and they would get two treats.
The researcher would then leave the room to join their colleagues in observing the child behind a two-way mirror and wait to see what ensued.
Marshmallow Test Results
What the researchers saw fascinated them.
Some kids immediately succumb to the pillowy white temptation and devoured the treat immediately. Others were able to exercise their self-control and delay gratification for the specified time in order to get the extra treat.
And still, others resorted to extremely creative measures such as covering their eyes or turning around so they couldn’t see the chewy white goodness, or gently stroking the marshmallow like a pet stuffy, which enabled them to hold out for the greater prize.
Overall, around 70% of the kiddos caved to the single soft and sweet treat. Only 30% were able to hold out to double their delight.
And while the initial tests were very enlightening for the researchers in answering their initial question of when the ability to delay gratification developed, what caused the marshmallow test to become famous was a series of eye-popping and unexpected correlations Walter Mischel and his colleagues found in the years following the original test.
The Marshmallow Test Kids
In 1988 Mischel and his colleagues conducted the first of a series of follow-up studies by mailing out questionnaires to the parents of the original participants. The questionnaires were designed to measure information of the kids’ coping and cognitive abilities.
And what they found astonished them.
Those marshmallow test kids who had been able to wait for the second marshmallow demonstrated more self-control in frustrating situations. They also had greater rates of competence and even higher SAT scores than their more impatient peers.
And while in the original papers Mischel and his colleagues “clearly emphasized the need for caution in the interpretation of the total findings”, the genie had been let out of the bottle.
Parents had a magic bullet, one-size fits all solution for ensuring that their kids were successful. If they could just develop the ability to delay gratification in their kids, they’d be able to ensure greater competence. Not only that, but their kids would have higher SAT scores, a better college education and career, and all the perks and privileges that come with those things.
Marshmallow Test Psychology
Part of the power of any important theory in science is its ability to take something very complex and make it simple and understandable. This is what the marshmallow test did for child development experts, teachers, and parents the world over.
How do you raise successful kids? Teach them to delay gratification. Have them develop willpower. Build their “no” muscle.
In essence, what the marshmallow test did was boil down the millions of variables and factors that impact a child’s development into one concrete trait; the ability to delay gratification.
In recent years, research on offshoots of the marshmallow Test like growth mindset, first introduced by Stanford’s Carol Dweck and later written for public consumption in the excellent book entitled Mindset, and Grit, popularized by Penn State’s Angela Duckworth, have found a home in mainstream parenting and education cultures.
And rightfully so.
There’s extensive research that has taken place on the topic in the last twenty years. This research suggests that a child’s self-control, the extent of their growth mindset, and the ability to be gritty, that is the ability to exhibit passion and perseverance to reach long-term goals, all have positive correlations with a child’s academic achievement and other positive life outcomes. In fact, author Paul Tough in his book How Children Succeed, lists 7 characteristics researchers have found “especially likely to predict life satisfaction and high achievement”.
At the top of the list? Grit and self-control.
The Marshmallow Test In Pop Culture
Do a quick search for the Stanford Marshmallow experiment video or marshmallow test video or marshmallow test youtube. You’ll quickly be drawn into a black hole of fascinating examples of variations of the famous experiment by Walter Mischel.
The most fascinating part, if we’re being honest, is checking out the poor kids’ facial expressions, self-talk, and coping strategies, as they squirm and fidget to overcome that fluffy white temptation while waiting for the adult to return to the room.
(I’m not sure what it says about us adults that we so love to sadistically watch children struggle to overcome temptation. Perhaps it makes us feel better when we’re unable to resist that sweet treat or impulse purchase ourselves in the grown-up version of the marshmallow test).
Marshmallow Test Book
Walter Mischel has even written a book entitled, not surprisingly, The Marshmallow Test. In it he lays out exactly what self-control is, how to develop it, and how to use it to meet and conquer the demands of everyday life. He delves into things like losing weight, quitting smoking and even into how self-control can help a person to win with money by doing such things as planning for retirement.
The Marshmallow Test and Money
Now the marshmallow test has BIG implications for whether or not people are successful with money.
The ability to delay gratification has been shown to have remarkable impacts on an individual’s financial success. No shocker there.
So how can you go about developing this ability to delay gratification to win with money?
According to Forbes, there are several mindsets you can practice to win with money. Here are a couple to focus on:
1) Visualize yourself reaping the future benefits
Just like kids in the original marshmallow test succumb to temptation because they couldn’t concretely imagine getting a second treat, so too adults fail to save for retirement because they can picture the future tangibly. The future is, for many people, a far-off place. It’s a place that doesn’t seem really “real”, and our future selves seem equally unreal.
Yes we know we’ll be old one day. But that old version of ourselves actually seems like a stranger to us. Because of this, we fail to plan for the future and instead spend like crazy today.
According to Mischel, kids who were able to hold out for the second marshmallow had a vivid picture of their future selves eating the two marshmallows. Because that future action was so clearly defined, they were able to wait for the bonus treat.
In fact, one study showed that when people were shown an age-enhanced picture of themselves at around retirement age, with wrinkles, gray hair and “a bit more of them to love”, they decided to save 30% more of their paychecks than those without the crystal ball treatment.
When saving for retirement, a house, or even an upcoming vacation, be sure to take the time to visualize and imagine yourself in clear and vivid detail enjoying the fruits of your savings. An HD picture of what your future will look like can go a long way to helping you save more.
2) Avoid Temptation
In the original marshmallow test, kids resorted to all sorts of methods to avoid scarfing the single sweet treat. Some of the most creative techniques were hiding the marshmallow or closing their eyes to make it disappear. In fact, in one case, a kiddo even decided to take a nap.
The takeaway lesson here is to make the temptation to spend disappear. In the consumer culture we live in, we’ll never be able to fully achieve this. However, we can do the next best thing; make our paycheck disappear before we spend it.
Make our paycheck disappear? That doesn’t sound good!
In this case, you want the money to disappear into your retirement account, and then you want it to “reappear” years down the line.
Paying yourself first, that is having your retirement savings automatically removed from your paycheck each month, is one of the best ways to avoid temptation. How can you fail to save if you take the choice to save out of your hands? By automating your savings, you’ll be sure to always meet your savings targets each month. And, as long as you don’t use various forms of credit to go into debt, you’ll always be sure that you don’t spend money you don’t have on those nasty temptations.
Delayed Gratification Magazine
The marshmallow test and findings on delayed gratification have even spilled over into the realm of journalism.
In this day and age of instant “news” consumed by millions on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and tons of other social media networks, a new branch of journalism has emerged.
Called slow journalism, it’s a direct response to the ultra-fast paced culture of the mainstream news media. Instead, slow journalism seeks to publish fair, high-quality work, produced without the normal time constraints other journalists face.
The movement even has its own flagship periodical, Delayed Gratification Magazine, which is published, not coincidentally, on a quarterly basis. But Delayed Gratification Magazine doesn’t focus on reporting breaking news like the mainstream media typically does. Instead, it seeks to report on news after it has taken place and the dust has settled. This alternate approach provides the ability to review and analyze news stories with the full benefit of hindsight.
The Marshmallow Test Debunked?
For years the conclusions from the marshmallow test had dramatic impacts on culture. One of the most important results was that it laid out a neat and tidy way to raise rockstar kids; teach them to develop the ability to delay gratification and they’d grow up to be stunning successes. Not only that, but they’d make their parents look like geniuses.
Well, hold on one quick second.
In 2018, NYU’s Tyler Watts and UC Irvine’s Greg Duncan and Hoanan Quan carried out the original experiment again. Only this time, they added some tweaks. Specifically, the researchers sought to expand the sample size and demographic characteristics of the test subjects.
The original sample had contained only 90 kids. And all had been selected from a daycare on the Stanford campus. Ya know, kids of professors, doctors, lawyers and other faculty at one of the most prestigious schools in the country.
Not exactly a “random” sample.
In the updated marshmallow test on the other hand, 900 kids were chosen. And they were selected on the basis of producing a sample that was more representative of the general population, including race and parents’ educational background.
In addition to these changes, the researchers also controlled for certain factors that may have unwittingly been the source of the original kids’ ability to delay gratification, such as household income levels.
What they found was and wasn’t a surprise.
In short, kids’ ability to delay gratification and the positive outcomes originally tied to that character trait were greatly influenced by the socioeconomic status of their parents. That is, kids from families higher on the social ladder experienced better long-term outcomes. In addition, such children were also better able to delay gratification.
No surprise there.
Researchers have known for years that a child’s ability to delay gratification is greatly impacted by their ability to trust the individual making the promise. This “trust factor” is definitely influenced by socioeconomic status. Those children from high-income families tend to have more stable life experiences. If someone promises them something, they have likely had a series of positive experiences with these promises being kept. Thus, they tend to trust that if they do in fact hold out for the larger treat down the line, they’ll be rewarded for their ability to delay gratification.
For those in lower income situations where the future is more uncertain, taking the sure thing now can often be a wise choice. It’s the old, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush” mentality. Through their experiences, they’ve learned that the future is uncertain and cannot be trusted. When times are tough and there’s not much wealth to go around, it’s better to forgo delaying gratification and take the sure thing now rather than to hold out hope for more in the future. For those in poverty, delaying gratification often leads only to disappointment.
Don’t Dismiss the Marshmallow Test Just Yet
What was surprising, however, was the speed at which some scientists and mainstream media were willing to toss out the conclusions from the original marshmallow test. In fact, according to study author Tyler Watts, “Our results show that once background characteristics of the child and their environment are taken into account, differences in the ability to delay gratification do not necessarily translate into meaningful differences later in life.”
Read, Mischel’s original conclusions no longer apply.
But there’s a reason why Walter Mischel has been at the forefront of behavioral science for the last 30 years. His work starting with the marshmallow test was groundbreaking science. And it spurred other researchers on to explore how and why delayed gratification develops as it does.
As I said, researchers have known for many years that affluence and poverty impact the ability to delay gratification. Watt’s and his colleagues’ findings don’t dismiss Mischel’s earlier work. Rather, it confirms that in fact, things are as complicated, if not more so, than scientists first believed.
As professor of psychology and neuroscience at UNC Chapel Hill Keith Payne says, “While it may be tempting to think that achievement is due to either socioeconomic status or self-control, we have known for some time that it’s more complicated than that. Early research with the marshmallow test helped pave the way for later theories about how poverty undermines self-control. We should resist the urge to confuse progress for failure.”
Delayed Gratification and The Marshmallow Test - What’s a Parent To Do?
As a parent trying to raise a successful kid, this may leave you more confused than ever.
Should we be trying to teach our kids to delay gratification and develop self-control? Is the whole growth mindset/grit culture that sprung out of Mischel’s original marshmallow test just pop psychology? Does it still have any real basis in research anymore?
What’s a parent to do?.
First things first. The psychology surrounding the positive impacts on kids when they are able to delay gratification is overwhelming. It’s not pop psychology. It’s a widely studied and accepted fact. Delaying gratification leads to better long-term outcomes as kids move into their teenage and then adult years.
Second, even if the impacts of developing the ability to delay gratification in your kiddos is overstated, what’s the harm?
Will they suffer in their academics? Nope.
Relationships? Uh uh.
Financially? Certainly not.
In fact, delaying gratification will help them in each of these areas. Kids can opt to spend less time playing video games and more time studying. As adults, the can remain faithful and avoid infidelity. And financially, they can control their spending and save more for their retirement when they’re young.
It just makes sense.
It did almost 50 years ago when Walter Mischel first sat down to tempt kids with marshmallows. And it still does today.