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Willpower, wealth, and the marshmallow test

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 04, 2018

The marshmallow test is a famous psychological experiment designed by Walter Mischel in the 1960s. Kids were given a single marshmallow but told they could have another if they refrained from eating the first one for 15 minutes. The results seemed to indicate a much greater degree of self-control amongst those children who were able to delay gratification, which led to better outcomes in their lives. From a New Yorker article about Mischel:

Once Mischel began analyzing the results, he noticed that low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.

But Mischel only tested ~90 kids from a single preschool. Researchers from UC Irvine and NYU recently redid the test with more kids that were more representative of the general population and found that household income was a big factor in explaining both the ability to delay and outcomes.

Ultimately, the new study finds limited support for the idea that being able to delay gratification leads to better outcomes. Instead, it suggests that the capacity to hold out for a second marshmallow is shaped in large part by a child’s social and economic background — and, in turn, that that background, not the ability to delay gratification, is what’s behind kids’ long-term success.

If you’re poor, you might look at the promise of future food somewhat dubiously…and not because of a lack of self-control:

The failed replication of the marshmallow test does more than just debunk the earlier notion; it suggests other possible explanations for why poorer kids would be less motivated to wait for that second marshmallow. For them, daily life holds fewer guarantees: There might be food in the pantry today, but there might not be tomorrow, so there is a risk that comes with waiting. And even if their parents promise to buy more of a certain food, sometimes that promise gets broken out of financial necessity.