The Marshmallow Test
The crucial importance of teaching children delayed gratification was resoundingly confirmed by “the marshmallow test,” conducted by Stanford University in the 1960s. A group of four-year-olds was given the choice of one marshmallow now, or two marshmallows later—if they would wait until the researcher conducting the experiment finished an “errand.”
Dr. Daniel Goleman writes about this remarkable experiment in his book Emotional Intelligence.
Some four-year-olds were able to wait what must surely have seemed an endless fifteen or twenty minutes for the experimenter to return. To sustain themselves in their struggle they covered their eyes so they wouldn’t have to stare at the temptation, or rested their heads in their arms, talked to themselves, sang, played games with their hands and feet, even tried to go to sleep. These plucky preschoolers got the two-marshmallow reward. But others, more impulsive, grabbed the one marshmallow, almost always within seconds of the experimenter’s leaving the room on his ‘errand.’
The diagnostic power of how this moment of impulse was handled became clear some twelve to fourteen years later when these same children were tracked down as adolescents. The emotional and social difference between the grab-the-marshmallow preschoolers and their gratification-delaying peers was dramatic.
Those who resisted temptation at four were now, as adolescents, more socially competent, personally effective, self-assertive, and better able to cope with the frustrations of life. They were less likely to go to pieces, freeze, or regress under stress, or became rattled and disorganized when pressured; they embraced challenges and pursued them instead of giving up even in the face of difficulties; they were self-reliant and confident, trustworthy and dependable; and they took initiative and plunged into projects. And, more than a decade later, they were still able to delay gratification in pursuit of their goals.
The third or so who grabbed the marshmallow, however, tended to have fewer of these qualities and shared instead a relatively more troubled psychological portrait. In adolescence they were more likely to be seen as shying away from social contacts; to be stubborn and indecisive; to be easily upset by frustrations; to think of themselves as ‘bad’ or unworthy; to regress or become immobilized by stress; to be distrustful and resentful about not ‘getting enough;’ to be prone to envy and jealousy; to overreact to irritations with a sharp temper, so provoking arguments and fights. And, after all these years, they were still unable to put off gratification…
Even more surprisingly, when the tested children were evaluated again as they were finishing high school, those who had waited patiently at four were far superior as students to those who had acted on whim. According to their parents’ evaluations, they were more academically competent: better able to put their ideas into words, to use and respond to reason, to concentrate, to make plans and follow through with them, and more eager to learn. Most astonishingly, they had dramatically higher scores on their SAT tests. The third of the children who at four had grabbed for the marshmallow most eagerly had an average verbal score of 524 and quantitative (or ‘math’) score of 528; the third who waited longest had average scores of 610 and 652, respectively – a 210 point difference in total score.