The Marshmallow

Last weekend, we got talking to some friends about a study described in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers. In the study, they took a bunch of four year olds and sat them down in an empty room in front of a marshmallow. They told the kids that they could eat the marshmallow any time, but if they could wait 20 minutes without eating it, they would receive a second marshmallow and could eat both.

They then followed the kids for years, and by the time they were well into adulthood, it became clear that the ones who were able to delay gratification and wait for the second marshmallow were far ahead of their more eager counterparts when it came to success. They made more money, they had more responsibility, they were farther along in their careers and accomplishments.

So Sir Monkeypants and I immediately both thought of our own four year old, Little Miss Sunshine, who only has two weeks left until she’s too old for this test. And we thought, maybe we don’t really want to know. Because there’s no guidelines in the book on what to do if your kid fails the test – possible strategies for turning them into future successes. It seems that if they fail the marshmallow test, they’re marked for life. We might end up spending our entire life patting Little Miss Sunshine on the head in a pitying kind of way, sighing that she’ll never amount to anything because she ate the marshmallow.

Plus, we did not have any marshmallows actually on hand, nor a sterile empty room to run the test.

But Sir Monkeypants was undeterred, so he beckoned over the Little Miss for the following conversation:

Sir Monkeypants: Little Miss Sunshine, say I give you a marshmallow. You can eat it right now, or you can wait 20 minutes and then you can have two marshmallows. What would you do?

Little Miss Sunshine: But, I don’t want a marshmallow.

[Parents beam with pride at their child circumnavigating the whole of science in this manner.]

Sir Monkeypants: Okay, say I have something you do want – like a Hershey’s Kiss. Would you like one now, or two in twenty minutes?

Little Miss Sunshine: If I wait, do I get marshmallows AND kisses?

Sir Monkeypants: No, if you do the waiting you get two things but just two.

Little Miss Sunshine: What if I wait an hour? Then can I get two marshmallows AND two kisses?

Sir Monkeypants: Um, I guess so.

Little Miss Sunshine: Then I will choose that.

FUTURE PRIME MINISTER OF CANADA, right there, folks! I am so proud.

10 thoughts on “The Marshmallow

  1. We actually had a big seminar about this test and the wider, related concept of self-regulation at the last child care conference I went to. Very fascinating. There’s a canadian psychologist who’s taken the test ever further to find that children who have just experienced something stressful have a harder time waiting to eat the marshmallow than children who are relaxed. This opens up a whole new way of looking at how children are taught self regulation in daycare and at home.

  2. smothermother

    i was always afraid to try it on the jellybean, knowing full well he would go for the marshmallow immediately. why dash my hopes for him to be the scientist who cures cancer. 😉

  3. Melanie Jackson

    Even at 9 and 6 years, my kids would eat the marshmallow right away and then whine for another one in 20 minutes. I don’t think that bodes well for their futures…

  4. Hypotheticals are so easy… 🙂 Have you seen the YouTube videos on this? Hilarious pics of the kids as they try not to eat the marshmallow. And it turns out that the kids who are best at waiting are the ones who come up with other ways to distract themselves from thinking about the marshmallow…

    And yes, if your child eats the marshmallow, there are things you can do to help him/her increase his/her self-regulation. I’m a positive psychology practitioner so you can trust me on this one.

    Finally, *future* prime minister? Why wait? Considering how they have been doing recently, I think she could only be an improvement right now! 🙂

    (Oh – can you put me in touch with Jennifer above? I’d like to know who that Canadian researcher is that she alluded to…)

  5. Mrs. Parrot Head

    Man did the negotiating crack me up. BTW, my little man would have refused the marshmallow on any grounds (still does – the only part of a S’mores he likes is the graham cracker) but as my daughter just turned 4 on July 28 I am headed home to try this on her.

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