The first time I recall hearing about the “marshmallow test” was on an episode of “This American Life”, in 2012 (“Back to School”), featuring Paul Tough, author of “How Children Succeed“. It was an interesting episode, discussing challenges in the American school system, particularly with kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. And the marshmallow test experiments prompt a vivid image – a small child is presented with the option of having a single marshmallow right away, or waiting for up to 20 minutes, and being given two marshmallows. Longitudinal studies on a cohort of young children who were participants in this research revealed that those who were able to show restraint and self-control performed better in a wide range of ways in later life: improved SAT scores, higher education levels, better ability to maintain close relationships, etc. (Oh, and there were some brain differences indicated by an experiment involving fMRI, for what that’s worth.)
While fascinating, the research was also a bit depressing to me. I picture myself as one of the kids who would have gobbled down the marshmallow right away. And much of what I have heard regarding the marshmallow test seems to have been focusing on the predictive nature of the experiments, revealing the capacity for self-regulation that impacts many aspects of our lives. And if you’re one of the kids who lacks that self-regulation? Doomed to a life of poor, impulsive choices, apparently.
Another podcast, Invisibilia, changed my perspective on this. “The Personality Myth” episode explored the dynamic nature of personality. One of the experts interviewed was Walter Mischel, the psychologist who conducted the marshmallow test experiments. In the episode, he discussed something about the experiments that wasn’t usually mentioned when people described them – the fact that children could be taught strategies to help them resist the immediate temptation in favour of the delayed reward.
That’s much more uplifting than thinking that your destiny is set, and can be predicted by your ability as a preschooler to resist a treat.