Can You Pass the Marshmallow Test?

“All right, here’s the deal,” said the lady to the tow-headed four-year-old she had brought into the small room, empty except for a table and chair. “Marshmallow — for you,” she said, plopping a fluffy white cube on the paper plate in front of him. “You can either wait – and I’ll give you another one if you wait – or you can eat it now. When I come back in 20 minutes, I’ll give you another one, so you’ll have two.”

One Now or Two Later

This was the set-up for the famous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, a study on deferred gratification conducted in the 1960’s by Walter Mischel, professor of psychology at Stanford University, on a group of four-year-olds.

The video footage of the kids as they struggle to delay gratification is priceless: Some cover their eyes or try to look away. Others stroke the marshmallow or bring it up to their nose for a wistful sniff.

The average time for holding out? Three minutes.

“A few kids ate the marshmallow right away,” Mischel remembers. “They didn’t even bother ringing the bell. Other kids would stare directly at the marshmallow and then ring the bell thirty seconds later.”

University researchers studied the developmental progress of each participant child into adolescence and reported that the children who were able to delay gratification were psychologically better adjusted, more dependable persons and scored significantly better grades in the collegiate Scholastic Aptitude Test (on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds).

Self-Control Trumps Intelligence

Looks like raw intelligence loses out again as the most important predictor of success in life. In fact, in an extensive analysis of over 15,000 elite performers throughout North America, Canadian psychologist Dr. Ray Metcalfe found that, more than high IQ, one of the six strengths they all had in common was their discipline:

“Elite performers plan their activities carefully, follow their detailed plan, and display exceptional impulse control.”

So if you’re looking to step up your game, learning how to defer gratification is a good place to start.

Three practical strategies to use when impulse strikes:

Shift your focus. According to Mischel, the crucial skill in self-control was “strategic allocation of attention.” Instead of letting themselves be obsessed with the marshmallow—the “hot stimulus”—the children who successfully waited found ways to distract themselves: by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from Sesame Street. That is, they didn’t get rid of their desire, they simply found something else to think about.

“If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.

Train yourself. These days, you see people everywhere doing the telltale zombie walk, transfixed by their smart phones as they leave buildings, exit elevators and walk the sidewalks.

I decided I didn’t want to be one of them. So even though I too feel an overpowering urge to check my phone as soon as I finish a meeting or leave the gym – Who called? Did someone text? Let’s check, let’s check! – I’ve trained myself to over-rule that first impulse and wait five minutes or walk several blocks before I let myself check.

Whatever the impulse – eating that third slice of pizza, jumping on Facebook or telling a colleague some gossip – train yourself to wait. Even if it’s only ten minutes, when you do take action, it’ll be a conscious decision and you’ll have pumped up your self-control.

Whatever habits you have now, you have because you’ve trained yourself in them. Are you training the ones you want?

Leverage the power of anticipation. Here, in the developed world, we live in an instant gratification culture.

But get this: although part of our mind tries to convince us that we’ll enjoy something more if we get it right away, that “want it now” mentality actually robs us of pleasure. Studies have shown that we gain more pleasure out of savoring positive outcomes than we do thinking about them after the fact. By developing the ability to wait for good things, you will enjoy them even more than if you hadn’t waited – bonus!

Your turn: What are some ways you (or your kids!) flex the self-control muscle?


  1. Diane Koenigsberg November 23, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    I actually need a before and after reward to have self control. So I get an extra fancy coffee large Coffee at Starbucks as a treat, do three hours of work and THEN get the pair of boots I have been eyeing.

    Love the new look of your blog!

    1. Renita November 23, 2011 at 10:20 pm

      Definitely good to have a reward system, Diane. You can take “guilty pleasures” and make them rewards for doing what you need to do.

  2. Nate Marti November 23, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    I remember doing this when I was very young (I’m 17 now) at the University.
    Now getting up to run before school on our cold, dark, Iowa mornings is a good test of discipline for me. You feel better for doing it though, as is the case with most of these things.
    Also want to say that I notice this very clearly w/ a lot of my classmates/teammates – discipline seems to always eventually breed success.
    Enjoyed the video 🙂 Like the new look as well.

    1. Renita November 23, 2011 at 10:19 pm

      Thanks, Nate, for stopping by and the positive feedback! Good to see a fellow Iowan here… 😉

      Interesting you’ve noticed the correlation between discipline and success with your teammates. Doesn’t matter how smart or talented you are, you will always need self-control to do the things you don’t necessarily feel like doing. And it’s true — the more you don’t want to do something, the better it feels when you do it anyway.

  3. rebecca @ altared spaces November 24, 2011 at 2:44 pm

    Pam Slim sent me here. Fabulous video. “It smells so good!” is temptation speaking to all of us. Thanks for the write up. I now have a new term for when I can’t seem to delay gratification: “Am I going to eat the marshmellow?”

    1. Renita November 24, 2011 at 11:04 pm

      Great idea, Rebecca — might be easier to talk yourself out of temptation if it’s just a “marshmallow.”

      p.s. Look forward to exploring your site, I like the sounds of The Island of Yummy. 😉

  4. Pingback: Classical Music Connects Episode 14 – Procrastination: Get Over It! | Marion Harrington Clarinet

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