Although he didn’t realize it then, when Walter Mischel and his team turned their attention to preschoolers at the Bing Nursery School on the campus of Stanford University in the 1960’s, he unleashed a tidal wave in cognitive science, which is still being felt today.
The experiment was pretty straightforward. A preschooler was seated at a table and presented with a single treat of some kind—a cookie, a piece of candy, or—most famously—a marshmallow. The child was told that the supervisor would soon be leaving the room. If the child could resist eating the marshmallow until the supervisor came back, they would get a second marshmallow. If they instead ate the marshmallow, there would be no opportunity for another.
Mischel was conducting a basic test in postponement gratification, and whether five year olds were able to demonstrate any kind of strategy for self-restraint, the willpower necessary not to gobble up that first tempting marshmallow.
As you might imagine, some children ate the marshmallow almost as soon as the supervisor left the room. Some ate the marshmallow before the supervisor even left the room. But some were able to hold out for that future reward, even for as long as 15 minutes. To do this, the children employed a myriad of methods. It turns out that by four years old, some children have already developed fairly sophisticated techniques for delaying gratification.
Among the participants were Mischel’s own three young daughters, and a number of their classmates. Over subsequent years, dinner conversation at the Mischel table included his daughters catching him up on how little Sally or Billy was doing in the years since the test.
As Mischel’s daughters shared their anecdotal observations, Mischel started to detect what seemed like a pattern. The kids who had resisted the lure of that first marshmallow, at least according to Mischel’s daughters, appeared to be faring better in school and bonding better with their classmates than the gobblers.
On a hunch, Mischel launched a longitudinal study. Ten years after the experiment, they tracked down the original children and measured their success and happiness across a number of areas. The longitudinal study was conducted every ten years after that for the next thirty years.
In his book The Marshmallow Test, Mischel explains how, a dozen years after the test, those who had “exhibited more self-control yielded less to temptation, were less distractible, were more intelligent, self-reliant, and confident and their SAT scores were significantly higher. By age twenty-five to thirty, those who had delayed longer in preschool self-reported less risky drug use, higher educational levels, greater income, had a significantly lower body mass index, and divorced less.”
This experiment has been replicated many times all over the world—and not just because there is something innately hilarious about watching a tiny child struggling to hold themselves together in the face of a single sweet. Again and again, researchers have come to the same conclusion: those who adapted and adopted early strategies for self-restraint fared better than their counterparts in a variety of ways.
Not sure you would’ve been a two-marshmallow kind of kid? Don’t worry: Mischel is quick to point out how his research has shown that self-control is, in fact, a skill that can be both learned and taught.
In next week’s post, we’ll discuss strategies for gobble-proofing your own willpower.