Of Marshmallows and Delayed Gratification

In the 5/18 New Yorker, Jonah Lehrer has written a fascinating article entitled “DON’T – The Secret of Self-Control.” It’s about marshmallows———huh?

If you’ve been around Hyde in recent years, chances are that you’ve heard the story of the Stanford University “Marshmallow Test” of the late 60s. If not, here’s a CliffsNotes explanation:

– A whole bunch of 4-year olds were gathered with each seated before a single marshmallow and then told, “I’m leaving the room for a few moments. If you wait until I get back before eating the marshmallow, I’ll give you another one. Don’t wait and you won’t get another.”
– Then the scientist left and the actions of each four-year-old were observed and recorded.
– Two groups predictably emerged: 1) those who waited, 2) those who did not.
– The successes and failures of both groups (today they are in their mid-40s) have been studied for the past four decades.
– Some of the results are startling. (e.g., The SAT scores of the “waiters” aren’t simply higher on average than those of the non-waiters, they’re 210 points higher!)

This test represents the first comprehensive effort to analyze and explore the notion of delayed gratification.

Rather than merely chronicle the Marshmallow Test, Lehrer goes deeper. He wonders how we can actually teach delayed gratification. He also seems to debunk the whole notion of “will power” in favor of a term he calls “strategic allocation of attention.” He writes, “Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow–the “hot stimulus”–the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from “Sesame Street.” Their desire wasn’t defeated–it was merely forgotten.”

Walter Mischel, the Stanford professor who originated the experiment, concurs, “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it. The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”

Lehrer also refers to a skill in adults called “metacognition, or thinking about thinking, and it’s what allows people to outsmart their shortcomings. (When Odysseus had himself tied to the ship’s mast, he was using some of the skills of metacognition: knowing he wouldn’t be able to resist the Sirens’ song, he made it impossible to give in.)” He seems to suggest that this skill is teachable.

There’s a lot there. (And it isn’t short.) But I urge all parents and teachers do give it a serious look. Here’s the link:


Onward, Malcolm Gauld