The marshmallows are not innate
July 2, 2013 6:53 PM   Subscribe

An old Stanford study famously found that preschoolers who could leave a marshmallow alone for 15 minutes in order to gain a second one would go on to do better at life. A new study suggests that the important factor here may not be the self control of the child, but the child's level of trust that the second marshmallow would ever appear.
posted by jacalata (53 comments total) 136 users marked this as a favorite
As time has shown, however, this is not an innate inevitability but a reflection of economic realities. All these “lazy” people were perfectly willing to work hard, study long hours, and plan for the future, but only when opportunities existed and they trusted that hard work would pay off. This lesson, that people work hard when they are confident that it will pay off, is simple. But it is one that is often eclipsed behind perceptions of culture, innate ability, or other explanations.
I wish I could turn this into a stamp and use that stamp on people's foreheads.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 7:00 PM on July 2, 2013 [142 favorites]

I never believed the second one was coming because grownups fucking LIE!
posted by basicchannel at 7:03 PM on July 2, 2013 [14 favorites]

That trust was the contract our urparents got in the 50s. Amazing things happened. Now, the only contract we get it that our banks probably won't fuck us if we pay them first. What shall next generation's contracts be?
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:05 PM on July 2, 2013 [13 favorites]

The kind you get in societies where people can be owned.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:07 PM on July 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

Yes, it's just like the story on Morning Edition today about teaching troubled teenagers how to avoid "committing crimes of violence"--it never occurred to those kids that they could just ask for the ball because they live in a world in which they are never given anything, not even the things they work for.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:08 PM on July 2, 2013 [27 favorites]

Really interesting, especially because the original marshmallow study is seen as such a part of the canon. Thanks for posting.
posted by Miko at 7:19 PM on July 2, 2013 [11 favorites]

Speaking as an insider, the marshmallow study has also been firmly appropriated by the business world, mostly as a tool of self-praise and justification. Thanks for posting this - I'm going to have a field day tomorrow at work.
posted by downing street memo at 7:20 PM on July 2, 2013 [18 favorites]

What shall next generation's contracts be?

Depending on what generation you mean by "next" either "really, really crappy" or "excellent, post-revolution".
posted by DU at 7:21 PM on July 2, 2013 [8 favorites]

Trust is what allows self-control to grow.
posted by bleep at 7:26 PM on July 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

Also interesting because of the following up finding: "One published almost 2 decades later found that the children who delayed gratification in the marshmallow experiment scored higher in a number of assessments such as the SAT and questionnaires filled out by parents describing their child’s academic success and ability to focus and delay gratification."

Of course this was taken as a sign that kids who had self-control over their desires had better cognitive abilities, rather than that kids who grow up in stable environments, where it's safe to wait for the treat later (as opposed to taking what is a sure thing before it can be taken away or before the promise of more later can be broken) do better on standardized tests and have more energy to devote to school.

I love some of the old white men who ran the world when I was a child, but I am looking forward to the time when we no longer gauge everything by their experience of the world and no longer rely on their assumptions about who people are and how they get that way.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:27 PM on July 2, 2013 [44 favorites]

I don't think anyone other group's prejudices and stereotypes are any less pernicious.
posted by anonymisc at 7:32 PM on July 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

this is a great article and really interesting news. My behavioral psychology training eschews the very concept of innate states and I think that it is a good choice. I've always found more logic and predictability when looking at objective, external states, rather than subjective, "everybody knows they're there" states, to explain behavior.
posted by rebent at 7:35 PM on July 2, 2013 [4 favorites]

Interesting that poor impulse control can be related to trust and confidence. I'm thinking of some people I know who have very poor impulse control and they all had erratic, unreliable and mentally ill parents who put their own needs ahead of those of their children.
posted by orange swan at 7:40 PM on July 2, 2013 [17 favorites]

I have always hated marshmallows and yet I know I would fail that test. Impulse control isn't exactly hardwired into my brain.

Plus, this occurred in a totally boring, silent, closed room with nothing else going on and nothing else to do. Seriously, do you realize how long 15 minutes is?
posted by Miko at 7:47 PM on July 2, 2013 [6 favorites]

This is a very useful reminder that as a parent I should not to be erratic, unreliable, and mentally ill.

All joking aside, this is great. It's both obvious in retrospect and enlightening.
posted by alms at 7:47 PM on July 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

Thanks for posting. My self-esteem has just risen a little higher.

I know I would have failed that test and I always thought it was due to me being, you know, the wayward, inconsistent child that members of my family have always said I was.

Now I can reconsider my child-self in a new light. The frequent broken promises and betrayals I endured as a child have been shown to have something to do with it. It also puts my adult achievements in a different light and makes sense of the fact that I do achieve, follow-through, be successful, when I am at some geographical and emotional distance from those same family members. It is like discovering some previously lost puzzle pieces and finding, wow!, they fit!

Stuff like this is very useful to me professionally also, now that I am studying to be a teacher in disadvantaged areas. It reiterates the fact that I must follow through on every promise I make to my students.
posted by Kerasia at 7:51 PM on July 2, 2013 [36 favorites]

It's also a useful reminder that most pop-psychology is basically horseshit.
posted by empath at 7:52 PM on July 2, 2013 [20 favorites]

This is a very useful reminder that as a parent I should not to be erratic, unreliable, and mentally ill.
Keep the kids on edge I say. They leave the marshmellow, but then the second marshmellow is a GIANT marshmellow. Or a raspberry sour. Or a SMORE!

Did any of the kids just stick the marshmellow up their nose?
posted by chapps at 7:53 PM on July 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

This is a very useful reminder that as a parent I should not to be erratic, unreliable, and mentally ill.

This sounds simple in concept. Try feeding kids.
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:59 PM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm sure I would have failed the marshmallow test as well, mostly because I hate to be bored, and sitting around looking at a marshmallow is boring. Plus, marshmallows are pretty awful, really. So following the calculus of "Eat the marshmallow right away and then you get to go home, because who wants a second one anyway", I would win 100% of the time.
posted by jokeefe at 8:04 PM on July 2, 2013 [7 favorites]

Life isn’t fair. But it helps if people believe it is.

What an odd note to end the article on. I would have expected something down the line of "Life isn't fair. But we can thrive if we treat each other fairly."
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:06 PM on July 2, 2013 [10 favorites]

This quote (thanks, Foci for Analysis):
As time has shown, however, this is not an innate inevitability but a reflection of economic realities. All these “lazy” people were perfectly willing to work hard, study long hours, and plan for the future, but only when opportunities existed and they trusted that hard work would pay off. This lesson, that people work hard when they are confident that it will pay off, is simple. But it is one that is often eclipsed behind perceptions of culture, innate ability, or other explanations.
reminds me of Why Nations Fail, mentioned on MetaFilter previously with a brief summary:
Their argument is that the modern level of prosperity rests upon political foundations. Proximately, prosperity is generated by investment and innovation, but these are acts of faith: investors and innovators must have credible reasons to think that, if successful, they will not be plundered by the powerful.
(Emphasis mine.)

It seems so obvious, at any level of economic participation: if the outcome of my effort or risk is roughly the same as if I don't make an effort or take a risk, why would I? It's much more sensible not to.

It really troubles me to see so many disincentives for working hard and investing in ourselves (crushing student loan debt; rigged financial markets that cost many people years of savings and trapped others in overvalued mortgages; flat wages; artificially low interest rates for savings) - building a prosperous economy requires real, achievable paths for people at all levels to get ahead.
posted by kristi at 8:06 PM on July 2, 2013 [36 favorites]

This is a very interesting interpretation and a great follow-up study. But please don't eat the marshmallow of "ah-ha, I knew those well-cited psychology studies are meaningless." From what I can tell, Walter Mischel and colleagues didn't make the claim that delay of gratification (as measured by marshmallows) is only a cognitive or personality trait. On the contrary, a quote from the 1990 paper (Shoda, Mischel, & Peake, 1990) acknowledges environmental factors:

"A difficult question that remains is the mechanism underlying the associations found between the delay behavior of the preschool child and the subsequent outcome measures. One contributing source may be stability in the subjects' family-mediated environments (e.g., Greenberger, Steinberg, & Vaux, 1982; Holahan & Moos, 1986; Lefcourt, Martin, & Saleh, 1984). For example, stability in parental child-rearing practices and in the psychosocial environment in the family and the community may be a common factor underlying both preschool children's delay of gratification behavior and their cognitive and self-regulatory competence in adolescence. These commonalities may contribute to the observed long-term correlations."
posted by parudox at 8:09 PM on July 2, 2013 [29 favorites]

Doesn't this experiment make a core assumption of gluttony as a motivator?

Think about the last time you ate a marshmallow: it's the sweetest, most intense, indulgent experience.
Are you really, before even having eaten the first one, already considering whether to eat the second?

Maybe society rewards the gluttons.
posted by cacofonie at 8:17 PM on July 2, 2013

I'm more in the marshmallow as sickly, cloying and industrial flavored camp.
posted by wotsac at 8:22 PM on July 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

I could sit there all day; I dislike marshmallows, always have. Ick.
posted by parki at 8:26 PM on July 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Well, my mind is somewhat blown. My 'rents basically embedded into me to never, ever trust them when it came to needing help, and it's something I've struggled with my entire life. Horrible lesson, but when they never given a, "yes", or a, "no", when it came to things I needed/wanted, you tend to just stop asking.

Because of that, I wouldn't go for anything involving some outside help: scholarships, jobs, friends, S.O.'s - the list is long. I became a supreme autodidact. All these things are difficult to even think about, and my Emersonian Self-Reliance is the only thing that I could, "rely" on, or trust, at least. Which is noble, but when everything is done the harder way, you don't get much done. Even when these outside things came to me, I wouldn't trust them for long. This leads to a lot of confusion to that outside party. I was a nightmare to date.

I think as a little kid, I would STILL wait for that second marshmallow, not because of anything to do with trust, but Fuck You! I'll show you how much I can endure your little game. More likely though, I'd walk out of the room, and buy my own marshmallows.
posted by alex_skazat at 8:27 PM on July 2, 2013 [30 favorites]

This article actually demonstrates some pretty poor logic. Just because the reliability of the provider influences people's efforts (would anybody think otherwise?) it in no way invalidates the original conclusions. If you look at the Rochester article instead of the interpretation, you'll see that they're suggesting the data "tempers" the old interpretation by showing that there are multiple factors involved. Just like everything else in psychology (and the world).
posted by svenx at 8:31 PM on July 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

Yeah, like I couldn't even see this coming. The great problem with ALL of these kinds of studies is that there are so many possible interpretations of the data, that the conclusions always say more about the researchers than human nature.
posted by JHarris at 8:32 PM on July 2, 2013 [6 favorites]

This study is gonna be really bad news for the Wheel.
posted by alms at 8:43 PM on July 2, 2013 [9 favorites]

I would have eaten the first marshmallow if it meant they weren't going to force a second one on me.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:49 PM on July 2, 2013

Having multiple conclusions doesn't demonstrate problems with a study. It's probably more likely what we want to happen, if we're trying to think scientifically about it. It's also what you often find in research articles, although not as much in the popular coverage of them. That there might be another reason for the findings (which, as parudox pointed out, was proposed by the researchers themselves) doesn't make the results of the study any less real. It just provides another way to interpret the existing findings. It also doesn't invalidate predictions, given that a correlation between two things can exist with a third factor as the causal link.

From a practical point, anytime I've seen this study introduced in course materials, it's been more as a support for building willpower vs. assuming that it's something you either innately did or did not have.
posted by bizzyb at 9:34 PM on July 2, 2013

Mod note: A couple comments deleted; if you think a post is boring, feel free to skip it.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 10:05 PM on July 2, 2013

Ten Percent Of U.S. High School Students Graduating Without Object Permanence Skills

I read that as "Without Abject Prostration Skills" and was all "Good for them!"
posted by anonymisc at 11:10 PM on July 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

One must wonder whether they checked that the kids liked marshmallows. What if the real truth is that kids who don't like marshmallows go further in life? I'd win that one.

In all seriousness, though, this is really interesting news. Let's cue this one up for the end of the Old Boys' Club.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 12:16 AM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd thought that this had made MetaFilter back last fall, but I must be mistaken: it was all over the popular press. A non-paywalled version of the journal article is available from Celeste Kidd's web page, as is a lot of her other very interesting work.
posted by knile at 2:44 AM on July 3, 2013

Those of you who are marshmallow haters may find this excerpt from the Wikipedia article cited above interesting: "The children were led into a room, empty of distractions, where a treat of their choice (Oreo cookie, marshmallow, or pretzel stick) was placed on a table, by a chair."

Maybe "Stanford marshmallow experiment" sounded better than "Stanford Oreo, marshmallow or pretzel experiment". And those of you who will inevitably protest that you don't like Oreos or pretzels either, tough cookie! (Ok, that was inevitable.)

Seriously, interesting article, thanks for the link!
posted by Athanassiel at 3:05 AM on July 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

This study is gonna be really bad news for the Wheel.

With the Wheel, my sister and I learned pretty quickly to avoid situations where people in lab coats would lead us into distraction-free rooms for any length of time. It was better to knee Adler in the crotch and make a break for the exit than risk a spin. Of course, that in itself would get us a spin which is how I got a puppy. Sally, on the other hand, had to destroy her favorite Breyer horse with a sledge hammer.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 4:57 AM on July 3, 2013 [12 favorites]

Maybe I spoke rashly when I disclaimed the whole field of these experiments, but it remains that a lot of these things have results that are so open to interpretation that it's difficult to say what is proven other than the barest fact of the experiment, and thus frequently the conclusion drawn has more to do with justifying researcher bias than anything else.

(Hey, the Wheel is back!)
posted by JHarris at 5:00 AM on July 3, 2013

So this is why an insurance company is using this to sell their product.

WARNING: Noozild accent and terminally cute kids.

Chocolate fish is not actually fishy. It's chocolate-covered marsmallow. In the shape of a fish.
posted by arzakh at 6:40 AM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

the child's level of trust that the second marshmallow would ever appear

This has always struck me as obvious. Adults are fucking liars, man, why would you believe them?
posted by rmd1023 at 7:15 AM on July 3, 2013

So this must tie in to "learned helplessness", yes?

I don't know why reading this made me sort of weepy. I guess it sort of felt like validation.
posted by windykites at 7:26 AM on July 3, 2013

When I was five years old my mother took me to the little movie theater in Hanford to see Santa Clause. The evening opened with a bunch of Disney's Christmas type cartoons. After about an hour of this, the house lights went up, and Santa walked out on the stage. The room went wild. All the seats were packed with kids (more or less my age) and their parents. It would take America another fifteen years to match the greeting Santa got that night from that room filled with screaming kids (that would be when the Beatles got off the plane in New York).

I don't remember too much of what Santa said, except for the ho ho ho part, but the payoff that night was to get a present from Santa's bag, handed to us by Santa himself. Ho ho ho, Santa, says as the aisles fill up, quickly grid-locking with sweaty, eager kids. Don't crowd, young folks, he says, there's enough for all.

So I sat quietly beside my mother until the gridlock had turned into a sluggishly running stream, the tidings facilitated by three or four of Santa's helper elf type ushers. Okay, I probably won't get to shake Santa's hand, but what the heck, I still get a present. Silly me. By the time I got there, Santa's bag was empty, and I returned to where mom was sitting, tears streaming down my cheeks. Santa was real enough, but he hated me.

Ho ho ho, motherfucker.
posted by mule98J at 8:50 AM on July 3, 2013 [8 favorites]

Anybody who has raised cats can tell you how this works. A cat that had unreliable access to food as a kitten will eat everything that is put in their bowl right away. A cat that had reliable food access as a kitten will eat when they need/want to.
posted by srboisvert at 8:55 AM on July 3, 2013 [3 favorites]

My T and I were talking about this trust vs. expectations vs. loci of control and perception of personal power just yesterday, when she asked, "Why are you afraid to speak up for yourself and your professional development at work?" And I said I didn't believe anything would come from asking for anything, or tooting my own horn or putting myself out there in the first place. Do I know this to be true? No. I'm going by what my childhood was like in similar situations, because living in my family was basically an overtime job with no bennies or pay, but plenty of opportunities for misplaced and shattered sense of trust on my end.

I'm glad I saw this. it actually gives me some insight on how I can help myself. I can try now. Something good might come out of it, and I'll get some Oreos!

And no thanks to the biologicals, damn 'em.
posted by droplet at 9:07 AM on July 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

Interesting. One wonders why it took 50(30) years for someone to attempt this kind of modification to the study.
posted by smidgen at 10:54 AM on July 3, 2013

The original studies are making no claims, at all, about whether the traits are "innate." I don't understand, at all, why people seem to think that some kind of "debunking" is going on here. All we have here is someone building on a piece of pretty solidly established research to flesh it out a little further. Nothing, at all, in the original experiments or their longitudinal follow-ups is being called into question here.
posted by yoink at 11:32 AM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

yoink: I read a piercing article in the New Yorker some years ago about how very rarely anyone ever bothers to replicate studies, and that when they are replicated (or revisited/challenged), it turns out to be exceedingly unusual to get the same results, because of factors beyond the researchers' awareness at the time. I think it was this Jonah Lehrer piece, The Decline Effect. It was a fascinating piece that forever reframed my attitude toward "studies show" arguments.
posted by Miko at 11:40 AM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

yoink: I don't know what was in the study reports themselves, but the reporting and influence of these studies has very definitely leaned towards the search for an innate difference. For instance, here's a quote from another Jonah Lehrer article (I know) in 2009 about the follow up work of the guy who ran the study:

"They’re also conducting a variety of genetic tests, as they search for the hereditary characteristics that influence the ability to wait for a second marshmallow”

I'm not going to argue that Lehrer is necessarily correct in his reporting here, but this is how I've seen the study be presented in popular culture forever: that some kids have it and some kids don't, and soon we'll be able to identify it at birth! So what is being 'debunked' here is not necessarily the study, but the pop culture mythos around it.
posted by jacalata at 12:12 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

And the interpretations/conclusions of the researchers.
posted by Miko at 1:54 PM on July 3, 2013

I don't think there's really any question that the conclusions of this study differ meaningfully from those of Mischel's group. They also differ from what appears to be the public (and simplified) narrative about this work. The latter is that self-control is evident throughout life in different ways, and is ultimately something innate. In contrast, Mischel's focus has been on self-control (measured by delay of gratification) as something with a hereditary component and which, importantly, can be influenced by learning of attentional strategies. This quote from the Lehrer piece shows this well:

The early appearance of the ability to delay suggests that it has a genetic origin, an example of personality at its most predetermined. Mischel resists such an easy conclusion. “In general, trying to separate nature and nurture makes about as much sense as trying to separate personality and situation,” he says. “The two influences are completely interrelated.” For instance, when Mischel gave delay-of-gratification tasks to children from low-income families in the Bronx, he noticed that their ability to delay was below average, at least compared with that of children in Palo Alto. “When you grow up poor, you might not practice delay as much,” he says. “And if you don’t practice then you’ll never figure out how to distract yourself. You won’t develop the best delay strategies, and those strategies won’t become second nature.” In other words, people learn how to use their mind just as they learn how to use a computer: through trial and error.

The current study essentially adds interesting complexity to the "delay of gratification as self-control" idea. It doesn't really invalidate it, nor does it debunk the existence of a hereditary component to self-control. It does show that environmental uncertainty reduces a measure of delay of gratification, pointing to a relevant factor besides trait or learned self-control. What remains as interesting hypotheses are whether learned uncertainty outside the lab actually produces lower delay of gratification inside the lab and whether that learned uncertainty predicts educational outcomes years later. It's also interesting what the relationship is between learned uncertainty and self-control.

Basically, I think this is an example of good and fruitful social psychology research, both the original work and this round. But it won't seem that way if it's all seen through over-simplified or exaggerated summaries.
posted by parudox at 3:32 PM on July 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

I would have waited for the second marshmallow, so I would have had TWO blobs of sticky puffiness to play with.

(Was I the only one who preferred marshmallows as a play medium rather than a food when I was a kid?)
posted by spinifex23 at 8:10 PM on July 3, 2013

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