Revisiting the Marshmallow Test

We earlier highlighted the marshmallow test: A researcher puts a marshmallow in front of a child and tells him that he can have a second one if he can go 15 minutes without eating the first one. The research then leaves the room. The ability to delay gratification is seen by many social scientists as a promising sign of future success.

But as The Atlantic explains, a new study has cast the whole concept into doubt.

The researchers—NYU’s Tyler Watts and UC Irvine’s Greg Duncan and Hoanan Quan—restaged the classic marshmallow test, which was developed by the Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel in the 1960s. Mischel and his colleagues administered the test and then tracked how children went on to fare later in life. They described the results in a 1990 study, which suggested that delayed gratification had huge benefits, including on such measures as standardized test scores.

Watts and his colleagues were skeptical of that finding. The original results were based on studies that included fewer than 90 children—all enrolled in a preschool on Stanford’s campus. In restaging the experiment, Watts and his colleagues thus adjusted the experimental design in important ways: The researchers used a sample that was much larger—more than 900 children—and also more representative of the general population in terms of race, ethnicity, and parents’ education. The researchers also, when analyzing their test’s results, controlled for certain factors—such as the income of a child’s household—that might explain children’s ability to delay gratification and their long-term success.

Ultimately, the new study casts doubt on the idea that being able to delay gratification leads to better outcomes. Instead, it may be that the capacity to hold out for a second marshmallow is more about a child’s social and economic background — and that that background is a bigger factor in a child’s future success.

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