My Kingdom For A. . . Marshmallow?: The Initial Study

If I had to pick my ‘top 3 favorite’ social science experiments, it’d really be no contest.

[Now, if you’re in awe of my mastery of the field of social science, you’ve forgotten an important point that I perhaps haven’t repeated in nearly 2 weeks: My son is Professor Eli Finkel, social psychology professor at Northwestern University. Remember now? Perchance if I listed some of his publications it would ring a bell. . . .? I could also tell you about his perfect offspring, but I sense I’m getting off-topic].

So the blue medal goes to the Milgram experiment, a re-enactment, some might say, of the Nazi defense, “I was just following orders,” as subjects displayed a willingness to shock other subjects if the person running the experiment took responsibility for any harm caused to the other participant–or even death.

Runner up is the “bystander effect.” Remember when as many as 38 New Yorkers just watched as Kitty Genovese was murdered before them, in an attack that lasted an hour, yet did nothing? That deserves a place in the top three.

And then there’s the 1972 Stanford Marshmallow Study.

Okay–I grant you, for real narrative pull and a shock ending, it’s not up there with the other two.

But I’ve been addressing in past posts how the skills even young children display play a crucial role in their later success [see “Children Who Miss Social Cues–Is It Even Worse Than We Thought?” as one example], and this study addresses the topic from a different angle.

According to this one, if you’re a little tyke, and you can put off eating a marshmallow right in front of you for a few moments–well you might be on your way to greater competency as an adolescent, higher SAT scores, and, perhaps, a more active prefontal cortex (which, if you advertise it right, is a great score with the ladies).

So how’d we get from gelatin to genius?

Well, the experiment went like this. In the late 60s and early 70s, Walter Mischel, the Stanford professor running the show, placed a marshmallow in front of over 500 4-year-old nursery school children, mostly kids of faculty and graduate students at Stanford (you take what’s available in psych experiments).

Researchers told the children they could have one marshmallow right away–but if they held out, and waited for 15 minutes without eating it, they’d get a second marshmallow (this time to eat with no waiting).

Researchers were interested in testing deferred gratification, or the ability to wait in order to get something you really want.

The kids were classic pre-school cute in trying to hold off from eating their treat. Some simply covered their eyes (if only that would work with dieting!). Others turned around in their seats. Some sang songs while others played under the desk, trying desperately to distract themselves from gooey temptation.

Watch here for a re-enactment of the study run in 2009. You’ll see children fondle, sniff-and even kiss–the marshmallow, hold it to their noses, bang their heads, pretending to eat it–and just eyeing it longingly.

(Watch the you-tube of a re-enactment of the original experiment.)

Results: Only about 30% of the children could make it 15 minutes. [Put a slice of cheesecake in front of me and I’m not sure I could do much better.]


Mischel published several papers based on the study, identifying the processes that successfully enable people to delay gratification.

He found, for example, that the children held out better if they were distracted from the visual stimulus by having other things to play with or to think about. If given specific instructions to think about an unrelated task, children could wait longer than if they were told to concentrate on the reward. Further, if they thought about the object in ‘non-food’ terms–marshmallows might be fluffy clouds–they also delayed longer than those with a more gustatory mind-set.

Mischel certainly verified through his work that distraction was of key importance in deferring gratification. [Next time that chocolate cake calls to you, go for a walk, call a friend–add up the cost of your children’s college tuitions. That’ll help with appetite control for sure.]

And having established some successful methods in delay of gratification, Mischel moved on.

As quoted in Jonah Lehrer’s article “Don’t!,” in the May 18, 2009, issue of the New Yorker, Mischel said:

There are only so many things you can do with kids trying not to eat marshmallows.

But the story doesn’t end there–and Mischel’s subsequent follow-up with these ‘marshmallow children’ yielded results about the ability to delay gratification that no one could have expected.


I help adults and adolescents through the particular struggles of our time: tension between couples, parenting frustration, blending new families, separation and divorce, (un)employment, cancer, and loss. When relationships come to an impasse, I use mediation techniques to try to ensure that each party will have his/her needs heard and accounted for in a dignified way. In addition to talking, listening, and reframing, I utilizes the tools of metaphor, active teaching, role-playing, visualization, and hypnotherapy.for families and businesses, as well as in cases of divorce.

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