What is the Marshmallow Test And What Can We Learn From It?

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This article is part of the Learn Self-Discipline series on Allihoopa. Click on the link to profit from the full series. It’s free. In this first article of the series, we’ll what is the marshmallow test and what can we learn from it? You have probably heard about the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. This was done in the late 1960s and early 1970s by Walter Mischel, a psychology professor at Stanford University.

The experiment is simple: children can choose between eating a marshmallow (or any sweet to their liking for that matter) right now or wait for a short amount of time (usually 20-25 minutes), after which they would receive two marshmallows instead.

It turned out that all of the children initially had a preference to wait a couple of minutes, but as time passed, more and more decided to take the tempting yet smaller, immediate reward. Only very few were able to wait the full time to get the second Marshmallow. The length of time, that passed until the children’s willpower folded, was taken as a measurement to judge on their ability to delay gratification.

After a couple of years, the researchers followed up with the children and found that those who were able to delay their impulse to eat the first marshmallow in favor of receiving the bigger reward, were all in all more successful in life:

  • They had a better Body-Mass-Index,
  • led a healthier life,
  • were wealthier and better educated.

So delaying gratification, and by that exerting self-control about their impulses, helped them to be more successful in their lives.

That by itself is really no rocket science. If you are able to put a certain percentage of your earnings aside in favor of your long-term goal of being wealthy, you will obviously be wealthy at a certain age.

And if you are able to get in the habit of jogging each day instead of being lazy, then obviously, at one point you will be in a good physical (and some argue mental) condition one day.

As we have already discussed in the article “Why Work is Beautiful And Can be Fun“, we humans are just more into immediate gratification, hence delaying the gratification in favor of a future goal appears to require self-control.

Now the interesting part comes in, when we have a closer look at these experiments. Mischel did several sub-experiments, to find out more about why some children were able to delay their gratification and others were not. Because this might help us today, to train our ability for delayed gratification and hence provide us with more success in our future lives.


Can you trust the outcome?

A very interesting variety of this experiment was done with two groups of children, where the trust of the children was destroyed in one group.

It turned out that those children who trusted that they would really get their delayed reward, were willing to wait up to four times longer, than those who didn’t trust that they would really get the bigger reward.

The scientists argue that it might actually be the more adaptive approach to take the small reward in an environment where you cannot trust on the outcome of the experiment.

Transferring this finding into real world, could mean that if you have reason to trust that your efforts will lead to your desired goal, you will be able or willing to delay gratification longer than if you don’t trust in them. The interesting word here is trust. Because I might well say: “I trust in the outcome of my hard work”. But do I really? And also, do I have sufficient reason to trust? After all, my hard work might not be the only determinator in a successful outcome.

As a simple example, let’s say, my goal is to lose weight. Eating healthier and exercising will definitely lead to a loss of weight over time. So I can absolutely trust in the outcome that my hard work will result in my end goal.

But what if I want to become a pop- or movie-star? We have all seen those unsuccessful participants in the numerous casting shows on TV. Some of them just don’t have the required talent, and/or looks. No matter, how much work they would invest, they would always be thrown out at an early stage. Could they somehow become a pop- or movie-star? Well, probably. Somehow it would be possible. But can they really trust that success will be the outcome of their work? Probably not. The odds are against them.

So, if you select your goals, make sure that your work relates to an outcome in which you can trust. Which is clearly related and in a clear state of causation to your efforts. If you do this, you are guaranteed to get that.

As an example, when writing articles for Allihoopa, I set myself word count goals. This way, I can trust that- if I meet these goals- I have finished an article (or at least the first draft) at a given point in time.

In other words: I can trust that there will be the desired outcome (a new article), so I feel compelled to meet my word count goal. But would I have been able to motivate myself sufficiently, if I would have set “Landing on page 1 of Google with this article” as my goal?

This outcome depends on many factors which are outside my control and hence, not in line with my ability to influence – no matter how hard I am willing to work. So it is likely that I would have found myself being easily distracted and never having finished this website.

One could argue that this is what is meant by the old saying: “The race is only against yourself”. If we count in too many outside factors which we cannot influence by our hard work, we might as well rely on prophecies.

Exposure, Distraction, and Priming

In the Marshmallow-Test, it also turned out that the exposure to the treat played a role in how well the children were able to resist the temptation. In its most simple form, the researchers covered the treat under a tissue.

While the children were aware that the treat was right in front of them and could be taken by moving away the tissue, they were able to resist ten times longer when the sweet temptation was covered.

A surprising discovery was made, however, when the researchers showed one group of children a realistic picture of the treat on a projector, whereas confronting the other group with either the real treat, or irrelevant / no pictures.

Now it turned out that the group that saw only the picture of the treat, were able to resist twice as long as those who saw irrelevant or no pictures (or the real treat). So while exposure to the real treat decreased their ability to resist, the picture of the treat actually increased their ability to delay gratification.

Your Mind Does Play a Role in Delaying Gratification

But, even more surprising! The researchers went one step further and primed the children’s mind. With the real treat sitting in front of them, the researchers told one group that they could pretend the treat were not real and just imagine it like a picture by just putting a frame around the treat in their mind.

Another group was shown the realistic picture, but they were primed that they could imagine that the treat was real and right in front of them.

You can guess the results: the way the children thought about the treats influenced their ability to resist it. The more abstract they considered them, the more likely they were able to resist. The more real they thought about them, the harder it was to resist the temptation.

Mischel had discovered that during the resistance to the treat, many children went through outright mind-battles in which they moved the treats to a side of the table that was far away or tried to distract themselves in other ways – e.g. by singing or closing their eyes.

So the researchers went on to prime groups of children by giving them these tips as a way to resist. They suggested that the children thought some fun thoughts that were unrelated to the actual treat and provided them with some examples on what these happy thoughts could be.

Now these groups were able to wait for more than ten minutes on average, even though the treat was exposed. And this compares to an average resistance of one minute, without the priming. On the other hand, however, when the children were primed to think about the marshmallow or unhappy thoughts, they weren’t able to resist the temptation and chose the immediate treat.

What This Means For Our Own Success

If we transfer this to our lives, we can also see, why it pays to have a positive mindset. In the next article of this series, I will explain the theory behind this. But for now we should be aware that if there is something that tempts us, the best way is to avoid it altogether, and if we are confronted with it, we need to distract ourselves from it by thinking happy, unrelated thoughts.

So, if you find yourself, continuously checking your emails, news-websites, or social networks when in fact you should be working, it might be best to either switch off your internet connection for a given amount of time, or use some sort of software that blocks those websites altogether for the time you set aside to work.

And if you want to lose weight, throw away all the candy, so that your house consists of healthy, yet tasty, food. And in case you are confronted with your temptations somewhere where you cannot influence it, distract yourself. Sing a song in your head. Or imagine that the chef spits on the deserts in this restaurant. Whatever helps, right?

Another interesting takeaway is that a picture of us with a Ferrari or beautiful beach mansion is not sufficient to influence our behaviour. It is the thought that it is real, that helps our willpower.

When I found this out, I was a bit stunned, because this is also something the Guru’s of the Law of Attraction advocate for. That is, imagining that your dreams are already real. So there is indeed power in this and we should practice it, if we decide to put up a dream poster or such like on our wall.

In the next article of our series on Learning Self-Discipline, we look at the hot and cool system of our brains, how they evolved and what it means for us. Bookmark this site and come back tomorrow or read it now by clicking here: Why The Hot And Cool System Play A Role in Self-Control