11 Aug 2015
In the 1960s, Walter Mischel and his colleagues at Stanford conducted The Marshmallow Study, a series of delayed-gratification experiments with young children. It is one of the most memorable experiments in the history of psychology and social-science research.
In the original test, which was administered at the Bing Nursery School, at Stanford, in the nineteen-sixties, Mischel’s team would present a child with a marshmallow. The child has been told that she could either eat the one treat immediately or wait alone in the room for several minutes until the researcher returned, at which point she could have two treats. The promised treats were always visible and the child knew that all she had to do to stop the agonising wait was ring a bell to call the experimenter back—although in that case, she wouldn’t get the second treat.
Key Takeaways from Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Study
This experiment was a test of delayed gratification. Over the years, the test epitomised the idea that there are specific personality traits that we all have inside of us that are stable and consistent and will determine our lives far into the future. Passing the test is, to many, a promising signal of future success.
The marshmallow study inspired a surge in research into how character traits could influence educational outcomes. It also influenced schools to teach delaying gratification as part of “character education” programs.
The children who were willing to delay gratification and waited to receive the second marshmallow ended up having higher SAT scores, lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, better social skills as reported by their parents, and generally better scores in a range of other life measures.
The experiments did not seem seminal at the time, at least on their own. But in a 1973 paper, Dr. Mischel assembled them with a raft of other evidence to level a sharp critique of standard, trait-based personality psychology. “The proposed approach to personality psychology,” he concluded, “recognizes that a person’s behavior changes the situations of his life as well as being changed by them.” In 2014, Walter Mischel published his first non-academic book: The Marshmallow Test. Its purpose was to explore the techniques that kids or any of us can use to pass the test; in short, learning how to delay gratification.