Apr 11, 2013

If Your Kid Gobbles the Marshmallow, Take Heart

If you have ever watched a video of kids being given the marshmallow test and had the feeling your kid would not pass, you're not alone. I have too.

The marshmallow test was devised in the 1960's and is one of the most well-known experiments in psychology. A child is offered the choice between one marshmallow now, or two if they wait. The researcher explains the test, places one marshmallow in front of the child, and leaves the room for 15 minutes. Children will either succumb to the "now" and eat the marshmallow, or will wait (most with much difficulty, providing extra amusement for viewers of the experiment on YouTube videos). Those who wait are rewarded with two marshmallows when the researcher returns.

This test has been thought to hold ramifications for life success. Successive studies and theories have posited a biological basis for delayed gratification, with correlation between how well children delay gratification and how well they do in life; longitudinal studies showed the children who waited for the two marshmallows had less obesity, higher academic performance, better relationships and more successful careers.

Cue uncomfortable feelings of parents like me watching these tests and just KNOWING their kid would fail.

Thankfully for us and our kids, more recent studies have put a different spin on this test.

A study last year concluded that kids who have experienced upheaval or unpredictability in their lives tended to eat the first marshmallow, and that this was for them the most rational choice - nothing to do with will power.

A study published last month has concluded that most examples of the marshmallow test were flawed, because the children did not truly understand how long it would be until the researcher returned. Therefore, with the timing of the two-marshmallow payoff uncertain, it made rational sense to eat the marshmallow available now.

And we all know how terrible children are at estimating time. Whether a child is told "15 minutes" or "in a little while" little kids have no idea how long that is going to be.

I'm pretty sure some kids are born with better self-control than others. Some probably also like marshmallows more than others. Some have more of a desire to please. And some get hungrier faster.

I guess the real take-away here is not to worry too much about these psychological tests. They are fascinating and can tell us something, but they don't tell us everything.

Here is a clip of kids doing the marshmallow test.
And be warned: it is not very scientific to do this test on your own kids!


  1. I always thought it was like the worry that many new parents had/have over when their baby was going to walk. It clearly had no bearing on their personality, other physical development achievements or intelligence. Just another thing to worry about.

    1. Yes! At least there's one worry I can now strike off my list.



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