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You see this marshmallow? You don’t have to eat it. You can wait. Here’s how.
September 18, 2009 6:30 PM   Subscribe

In the late 1960s, Walter Mischel conducted a series of experiments on delayed gratification in preschoolers that became known as the Marshmallow Test. A recent New Yorker article talks about the eventual path that his research took and its wider implications. New research points to specific differences in brain activity between people with good self control and people with poor self control. Promising scientific findings aside, it's the (adorable) movie re-enactment of the marshmallow tests that is making news recently.
posted by hindmost (47 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
Radiolab did a fantastic piece on this. It's short and sweet. sorry
posted by farishta at 6:37 PM on September 18, 2009 [3 favorites]


I love the girl who just stuffs it in her mouth right away, then gets up and leaves, fully content content.
posted by delmoi at 6:51 PM on September 18, 2009 [3 favorites]


Damn. Now I want a marshmallow. Or a s'mores. Mmmm.
posted by FunkyHelix at 6:54 PM on September 18, 2009


Sometimes called the "Stanford Marshmallow Experiment," it forms the core of my born-again right-wing politics.
posted by grobstein at 6:57 PM on September 18, 2009 [5 favorites]


I had the marshmallow experiment performed on me when I was a kid. I went to a pre-school very close to the local university, and they allowed the psych kids to come over and run tests on us (with parents' permission, I assume). One of my earliest memories is being shown a marshmallow and being made to wait. I believe that the test was run on me several times, sometimes with a choice being made between a pretzel and a marshmallow. Sometimes there was a little bell like the kind they have at the front desk at hotels, and I was told that if I could wait the whole time they were gone, I could have the marshmallow, but if I couldn't wait any longer I could ring the bell and they'd come back and give me the pretzel instead. One time I'm certain that I rang the bell and then they didn't come back, the bastards, so I kept ringing it and ringing it.

You know how with your early memories, sometimes you don't know if they really happened or if instead they were a dream or something stitched together from others? The thing with the marshmallows and the little room was always one of those things for me (I'd considered doing an AskMe about it). I'd always wondered why I had marshmallows dangled in front of me as a child, or if in fact it had happened at all.

And when I saw this film earlier this week, I had my answer. Yes, my memories were real. And they'd done it because they wanted stand behind a one-way mirror and laugh at me.

Grown-ups are dicks.
posted by Bookhouse at 7:13 PM on September 18, 2009 [101 favorites]


Looks like a good link, I'll check it out later.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 7:41 PM on September 18, 2009 [2 favorites]


That towheaded boy in the dark gray t-shirt reminds me of my own little marmot. Hee.
posted by pinky at 7:42 PM on September 18, 2009


"New research points to specific differences in brain activity between people withwhen they exhibit good self control and people with poor self control."

Fixed.
posted by Eideteker at 8:10 PM on September 18, 2009 [4 favorites]


funny stuff. Now do it again with adults and cocaine.
posted by billyfleetwood at 8:16 PM on September 18, 2009 [8 favorites]


I'm browsing Metafilter when I should probably be doing something else. That's a bad sign.

Plus, I really like Mallowmars.
posted by mccarty.tim at 8:17 PM on September 18, 2009


The thought that there will be no marshmallows later merely makes me more intent on maximizing present marshmallow intake. This is why I am a Total Failure at Life, I suppose.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:22 PM on September 18, 2009


It is also why my fridge is either full of beer or completely beerless, come to think of it.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 8:23 PM on September 18, 2009 [7 favorites]


tl;am
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:26 PM on September 18, 2009 [41 favorites]


Holy cow that mom has a lot of kids. I'd say temptation is genetic.
posted by iamkimiam at 8:31 PM on September 18, 2009 [3 favorites]


I noticed a few of the kids tried to "cheat" by pulling teeeeeeeeny little pieces from off the bottom and having a taste. I wonder if anyone noticed that in the original test, and whether that was factored in?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:32 PM on September 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


Interesting experiment, but what about subjects kids who aren't into marhsmallow or sweets in general? Or "sweets" given to them by random people?

There's the dopamine vs. conditioning thing when talking about medicated Parkinsons patients and gambling - and Parkinsons (and many many many other) drugs(especially anti-depressants) vs. placebo, here, there's not even a mention of desires.

Ok, fine, ALL kids like sweet and ALL kids love marshmellows and the experiment was conducted on a wholly homogenous sample of kids.
posted by porpoise at 8:37 PM on September 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ok, that towheaded thing by pinky?

Wow, I never knew there was a prejudice for that. Growing up, fair fair fairies were social GODS.
posted by porpoise at 8:40 PM on September 18, 2009


the study doesn't really take into account what happens in real life. You wait patiently, but the second marshmallow never comes. And some other kid in another room not only gets your second marshmallow, but he gets half of the first marshmallow you waited so patiently for. Once he has all the kid's marshmallows he gambles them away in a bizarre and highly complicated chocolate milk swap at recess. Of course he loses not just everybody's marshmallows, but the next 35 years supply of marshmallows that haven't been made yet. In the end, along with all the chocolate milk he squirreled away, the teachers give that other kid eleventy trillion marshmallows, and you get squat.

How's your self control now?
posted by billyfleetwood at 8:50 PM on September 18, 2009 [58 favorites]


^damn, billy, what kind of wireless service you got that lets you post to metafilter from the clocktower?
posted by Diablevert at 9:10 PM on September 18, 2009 [7 favorites]


This is not a mockery of the health care reform bill/debate/saga* or is it?

*First marshmallow is reform, second marshmallow is the public option...
posted by JoeXIII007 at 9:11 PM on September 18, 2009 [2 favorites]


Pretty much a double.
posted by bigmusic at 9:23 PM on September 18, 2009


It probably says something about my family that my father regularly refers to me as "a one marshmallow kind of guy".
posted by Justinian at 9:58 PM on September 18, 2009 [4 favorites]


Next up: old farts in a room offered one dram of scotch -- with the promise of another, if they can hold out for such.
posted by ericb at 10:22 PM on September 18, 2009


Procrastination is good? Who knew?
posted by Jimmy Havok at 11:31 PM on September 18, 2009


My old professor. I remember as an undergrad student with a background more solidly backgrounded in 'hard science' absolutely contemptuous of his 'Introduction to Personality' course. I resolved to completely top-deck the exams and papers, in order to achieve the privilege of telling the professor (with relative impunity) just what all I thought of the 'rigorousness' of his faux-scientific curriculum. I achieved my goal, but am more than a little embarassed at how petty I was then. At the time, I found myself upset at intellectually rigorous scientists struggling so very hard to work for an ever-shrinking pie of grants when such relatively lax work resulted in full professorship and blatant cash grabs with frequently-updated mandatory book editions for the wide-eyed undergrads. I find myself shrugging these days at the issue at large. It is what it is. He has an interesting beard, can tell some remarkable stories, and has cute footage to document it all.
posted by junebug at 11:44 PM on September 18, 2009 [4 favorites]


I think the real life incident would play out like this:

You wait for hours staring at the marshmallow when the teacher re-enters the room and announces that he forgot all about you and had run out of marshmallows anyway. The teacher says you can keep the marshmallow which tastes like shit as you eat it walking home with bladder bursting.

P.S., I am a glass half empty kind of guy.
posted by digsrus at 5:17 AM on September 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


Carolyn Weisz is a textbook example of a high delayer. She attended Stanford as an undergraduate, and got her Ph.D. in social psychology at Princeton. She’s now an associate psychology professor at the University of Puget Sound. Craig, meanwhile, moved to Los Angeles and has spent his career doing “all kinds of things” in the entertainment industry, mostly in production. He’s currently helping to write and produce a film.

Wait, I'm supposed to want to be Carolyn?
posted by molybdenumblue at 5:30 AM on September 19, 2009 [8 favorites]


The second marshmallow is a lie.
posted by felix betachat at 6:01 AM on September 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


I bet that the little girl who immediately ate the marshmallow then grabbed the plate and headed for the door will be FAR more successful in life than the kids who waited.
posted by billysumday at 6:20 AM on September 19, 2009 [9 favorites]


Pretty much a double.

Pretty much.

Since we're here, there are some interesting rebuttals that can be made to the supposed power of delayed gratification. For example, it's not always to your advantage. For example, if I am offered 20 dollars (or marshmallows / ducats / etc.) now, or 40 if I wait another 10 minutes, waiting is probably the best option. If you offer me 200 right now, or 201 if I wait a year: arguably taking the 200 on the spot is the best option. If the environment is uncertain - maybe I doubt you'll follow through on the deal, maybe there is severe marshmallow deflation - then opting for an immediate and certain reward is absolutely the right call. You could also make an argument for functional value. Maybe I only want 20 marshmallows. If I had another 20 they would go to waste, so there's no value in me waiting for the reward.

In summary: psychology is hard.
posted by outlier at 6:30 AM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


They should rerun this experiment, but then put ipecac in the second marshmallow.
posted by felix betachat at 6:37 AM on September 19, 2009


Why don't they give the kids something else to do while waiting? They're stuck staring at the damn marshmallow.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:48 AM on September 19, 2009


I bet that the little girl who immediately ate the marshmallow then grabbed the plate and headed for the door will be FAR more successful in life than the kids who waited.

Let me guess. You stuffed the marshmellow video into your face and didn't bother to do your homework read the article.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:03 AM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


there are some interesting rebuttals that can be made to the supposed power of delayed gratification

The real power of delayed gratification is that it teaches self control-- something which has all sorts of applications. In the case of marshmallow/rewards, yes, as you have pointed out it is not always in your best interests to hold off, but learning self-control can only lead to positive outcomes. How you deal with money, sex, anger, diet, work, and other aspects of life can determine your sense of self-worth and thus your happiness. Sure you can luck into prosperity (becoming a rock star, for example) but how much can you depend on luck? Isn't it better to use determination, hard work, will power to achieve your ends?
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:20 AM on September 19, 2009


Pretty much a double.

It's not a double; it's a reward. The nice lady told me that if I could refrain from commenting on the first post, she'd be right back with a second one.
posted by Elsa at 8:23 AM on September 19, 2009 [6 favorites]


Another interesting twist to the idea of teaching delayed gratification is the species cross over: I taught my bulldog as a puppy to wait for her treats and I believe that has improved her behavior around food. She was taught to sit and wait for her dinner, and she was also taught to balance a biscuit on her nose and wait for the signal to eat. I can't prove the correlation but she exhibits huge amounts of self-control when it comes to food. I can leave food on the coffee table and exit the room without fear she will snaffle it up. She rides in the back seat of the car with the bag of take-out food all the home without investigating the smells. I can throw bits of chicken on the floor for the cat and tell the dog, "Not yours,"and she obeys. Whenever someone gets a puppy, I urge them to teach the dog to wait for food.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 8:47 AM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


My wife's father worked hard all his life, promising his wife that they'd travel when he retired.

He didn't make it: he retired on disability and died before he ever made it to 65.

Which taught us some sort of Important Life-Lesson about deferring gratification. There might never be a second marshmallow.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 8:57 AM on September 19, 2009 [9 favorites]


"Isn't it better to use determination, hard work, will power to achieve your ends?"

No. That would be the boring way to achieve your ends. Not the better way.
posted by y6y6y6 at 9:01 AM on September 19, 2009


Going to buy big, tasty marshmallows. Dying to see what my kids will do!!
posted by pearlybob at 9:45 AM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


No. That would be the boring way to achieve your ends. Not the better way.

True, but I think that the delayers will uniformly be quite successful but not superbly so. Steve Jobs is probably not a delayer, but there are thousands of engineers and designers in Apple who built their careers over years of learning their crafts through hard work.

It's really about risk. Study engineering or accounting and work hard up the conventional ladder- 95/100 you'll build yourself a nice little career, but you're not likely to end up a billionaire. Start your own company, you'll most likely fail, but you could strike gold.

Company founders are impatient, they'll grab the cookies. Harvard Business educated CFOs are the kind that wait. Of course, being a swashbuckling entrepreneur is a lot more romantic than being a technocrat.
posted by atrazine at 10:00 AM on September 19, 2009


Let me guess. You stuffed the video into your face and didn't bother to read the article.

Not only did I read the article, but I read it because my father cut the article out of the New Yorker and sent it to me in the mail a few weeks ago. He's old school like that. Need to get that feller a computer.

And also, seriously, marshmellow?
posted by billysumday at 11:42 AM on September 19, 2009


She might look cute now, but wait till she grows up to become a psychopathic, narcissistic adult with poor self control. Why, she might even become a politician.
posted by binturong at 1:08 PM on September 19, 2009


For example, it's not always to your advantage. For example, if I am offered 20 dollars (or marshmallows / ducats / etc.) now, or 40 if I wait another 10 minutes, waiting is probably the best option. If you offer me 200 right now, or 201 if I wait a year: arguably taking the 200 on the spot is the best option. If the environment is uncertain - maybe I doubt you'll follow through on the deal, maybe there is severe marshmallow deflation - then opting for an immediate and certain reward is absolutely the right call. You could also make an argument for functional value. Maybe I only want 20 marshmallows. If I had another 20 they would go to waste, so there's no value in me waiting for the reward.

This is one of the reasons why some people view the poor as lacking self-control, when, in fact, if you are raised in an environment which is truly uncertain, different strategies are adaptive. Of course, this cognitive style puts poor kids raised in chaotic environments at a serious disadvantage in school for yet another reason.
posted by Maias at 2:09 PM on September 19, 2009 [8 favorites]


Also, what about people like me? I don't like marshmallows.
posted by tangerine at 4:28 PM on September 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


I only liked marshmallows that were stale to the point of being crunchy. I would have waited between a month or two before eating the marshmallow.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:17 PM on September 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


There might never be a second marshmallow.

Dammit. I hate that you said that.

I have this plan to be completely out of debt (including mortgage) by 2020. Some of it involves self-sacrifice. But if there "might never be a second marshmallow" then why don't I just spend and spend until I go bankrupt or die (at which point the life insurance kicks in and my wife easily pays off all debt).

I'm being facetious, if not a little satirical. On one hand we're all told to live as if we could die tomorrow. On the other hand, we are chastised on the general lack of personal responsibility pervasive in our society and in the average person. Sometimes those two things are at odds with each other.
posted by Kickstart70 at 9:29 AM on September 20, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also, I wish they would do this experiment with junkies and syringes full of heroin. I bet you could find the ones most likely to follow through with addiction treatment.
posted by Kickstart70 at 9:31 AM on September 20, 2009


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