By Christine VanDeVelde
Between 1968 and 1974, more than 600 students at Bing Nursery School in Palo Alto, Calif., took part in the “marshmallow test,” one of the most famous studies in psychology.
The “test” was the brainchild of psychologist Walter Mischel, then of Stanford University, who set out to understand how children develop the ability to delay gratification, a critical skill for success in life.
In the “surprise room” of the university’s laboratory nursery school, a 4-year-old was offered the choice of a cookie, pretzel stick or marshmallow. The researcher would then place the treat in front of the child, we’ll assume the marshmallow is chosen, saying, “You can have this one marshmallow any time you want it, but if you don’t eat it and wait until I return, then you can have two.” The researcher then left the room for 15 minutes.
About a third of the children immediately ate the marshmallow. Another third waited (an average of 3 minutes), singing to themselves, approaching their marshmallow, sniffing it, then rearing back as if it were dangerous, and then eating it. The final third fidgeted, grimaced, danced in their seats, one girl even napped, but waited the seemingly endless 15 minutes until the researcher returned and they could have the two marshmallows.
It was the results from a series of follow-up studies of the original participants that entrenched the “marshmallow test” as the paradigm for self-control, the subject of TED Talks, YouTube videos, and some further adventures of Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster.
Later in life, the research found, the “waiters” were thinner, handled stress better, enjoyed better friendships, had more grit, fewer substance abuse problems, and higher SAT scores than the “grabbers.”
Now, Mischel has gathered his entire body of research on resisting the siren song of temptation in a new book, “The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control” (Little, Brown and Co.). The book is part science, outlining the history of the test and the impact of factors like gender, age, trust and stress on self-control, and part self-help, detailing the strategies children and adults can adopt to exercise willpower over “marshmallows,” to accomplish goals such as quitting smoking, saving for retirement and even overcoming heartbreak. Following is an edited version of our conversation: