We Didn’t Eat the Marshmallow. The Marshmallow Ate Us


Michael Bourne in the New York Times Magazine:

In a series of famous experiments in the 1960s and ’70s conducted by the Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel, preschoolers were invited to sit alone in a room furnished only with a small desk. On the desk sat two marshmallows (or equivalently tempting treats) and a bell. The researcher told each child that he had to leave, but that when he returned, she could eat both marshmallows. If she wanted one marshmallow before then, however, she could ring the bell and eat one, but not both. Then the researcher shut the door, leaving the child alone with the forbidden marshmallows.

Some children gobbled a marshmallow the minute the door was closed, while others distracted themselves by covering their eyes, singing and kicking the desk. One resourceful child somehow managed to take a nap. But here’s the part that made the experiment famous: In follow-up studies, children who had resisted temptation turned out years later to be not only skinnier and better socially adapted, but they also scored as much as 210 points higher on their SATs than the most impatient children in the studies did.

I think I speak for thousands of my fellow Americans when I say that the first time I read about Mischel’s marshmallow study — in Daniel Goleman’s best seller, “Emotional Intelligence” — I imagined myself at age 4, staring at that fateful marshmallow. The tale of the marshmallows, as presented in Goleman’s book, read like some science-age Calvinist parable. Was I one of the elect, I wondered, a child blessed with the moral fortitude to resist temptation? Or was I doomed from age 4 to a life of impulse-driven gluttony?

Clearly I’m not alone in this reaction. Search for “marshmallow experiment” on YouTube, and you’ll find page after page of home-video versions of the experiment in which 4-year-olds struggle not to eat a marshmallow. The marshmallow study has been the subject of TED talks. The New Yorker published a long article about it. Radiolab did a show on it.

More here.