067: Does the Marshmallow Test tell us anything useful?

The Marshmallow Test is one of the most famous experiments in Psychology: Dr. Walter Mischel and his colleagues presented a preschooler with a marshmallow.  The child was told that the researcher had to leave the room for a period of time and the child could either wait until the researcher returned and have two marshmallows, or if the child couldn’t wait, they could call the researcher back by ringing a bell and just have one marshmallow.  The idea was to figure how delayed gratification develops, and, in later studies, understand its importance in our children’s lives and academic success.

Dr. Mischel and his colleagues have followed some of the children he originally studied and have made all kinds of observations about their academic, social, and coping competence, and even their health later in life.

But a new study by Dr. Tyler Watts casts some doubt on the original results.  In this episode we talk with Dr. Watts about the original work and some of its flaws (for example, did you know that the original sample consisted entirely of White children of professors and grad students, but the results were extrapolated as if they apply to all children?).  We then discuss the impact of his new work, and what parents should take away from all of this.

As a side note that you might enjoy, my almost 4YO saw me open my computer to publish this episode and asked me what I was doing.  I said I needed to publish a podcast episode and she asked me what it was about.  I told her it’s about the Marshmallow Test and asked her if she wanted to try it.

She is, as I type, sitting at our dining room table with three marshmallows on a plate in front of her, trying to hold out for 15 minutes.  We’re not doing it in strictly; we are both still in the room with her, although we’re both typing and ignoring her and asking her to turn back toward the table when she asks us a question.

She keeps asking how many minutes have passed, which I imagine (as I tell her) is quite helpful to her in terms of measuring the remaining effort needed.  She seems most torn between wanting to continue building her Lego airport and the need for the three marshmallows.  She has sung a bit, and smelled the marshmallows a bit, and stacked them into a tower, but she is mostly trying to ignore them and is counting as high as she can.

14 minute update [quiet, despairing voice]: “I’ve been waiting for so long…

She did make it to 15 minutes (that’s her devouring the third marshmallow in the picture for this episode), although I wonder if she might not have without the time updates.  We’ll have to try that another day:-)



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Also published on Medium.


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