We learned the wrong lesson about self-control from the famous marshmallow test

Whatever, eat up.
Whatever, eat up.
Image: AP Photo/Larry Crowe
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Kids love marshmallows. A lot. One of the most famous psychological experiments of the last few decades was designed to put that love to the test.

A seminal 1990 study, conducted by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel and his colleagues, described what happened when preschoolers were brought face-to-face with delectable marshmallows or another comparable treat. The children were offered a deal: The experimenter was going to leave the room. If they could hold off gobbling down one marshmallow until the experimenter returned, they would get two marshmallows. Some kids resisted the temptation; others couldn’t wait that long.

Years later, the psychologists followed up with the children as adolescents, and found evidence that the kids who had held out for the second marshmallow tended to be more well-adjusted, do better on the SATs, and have a lower body mass index (BMI), among other findings, suggesting that a child who was able to practice delayed gratification was likely to reap a range of benefits down the line.

It’s an undeniably charming study, and one that’s easy to understand. Over the years, it’s been widely touted as scientific proof of the importance of self-control. As Michael Bourne wrote for the New York Times in 2014, its appeal lies in the fact that it “appears to reduce the complex social and psychological question of why some people succeed in life to a simple, if ancient, formulation: Character is destiny.”

There’s just one problem: The study may not mean what we think it means.

A new study, published in the journal Psychological Science, replicated the marshmallow test, exploring the link between preschoolers’ ability to delay gratification and their academic performance and behaviors as adolescents. (The researchers call the new study a “conceptual replication” because it does not exactly mimic the conditions of the original study, instead using a larger, more diverse sample of children, including children whose mothers did not have college degrees.)

The results don’t debunk the original marshmallow test. But the study, conducted Tyler Watts of New York University and Greg Duncan and Haonan Quan of the University of California, Irvine, does complicate the original research findings.

In essence, the new study still finds that there’s a strong correlation between the ability to delay gratification from a young age and later achievement. But after accounting for a number of controls, including early indicators of the children’s cognitive functioning, home environment, and family background, the correlation between delayed gratification and achievement was greatly reduced.

Describing the results of the new study for The Atlantic, Jessica McCrory Calarco, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University, explains, “the capacity to hold out for a second marshmallow is shaped in large part by a child’s social and economic background—and, in turn, that that background, not the ability to delay gratification, is what’s behind kids’ long-term success.” This makes intuitive sense: Of course whether you grow up in a rich or poor household will have a much bigger effect on your chances in life than how you act around marshmallows. And, as Calarco notes, it’s also logical that children from poorer backgrounds would find it harder to hold out for the second marshmallow; when you’re accustomed to scarcity, you take the treat while you can.

This isn’t the first time that the marshmallow test has come under scrutiny. One study, published in 2013, noted that a child’s ability to wait for a reward reflected not only the child’s level of self-control, but also the child’s trust that a second treat would indeed materialize.

Mischel himself says the results of the original study are often misinterpreted. He wrote a book in 2014 meant to clarify what the marshmallow test can and can’t tell us. For his part, Mischel seems most interested not in the marshmallow test’s predictive ability, but in the strategies that both children and adults can use to regulate their emotions and impulses. “Four-year-olds can be brilliantly imaginative about distracting themselves, turning their toes into piano keyboards, singing little songs, exploring their nasal orifices,” he told The Atlantic in 2014. For adults, he recommends implementing “if-then” strategies: If you’re trying to give up smoking, for example, you might tell yourself, “If I want a cigarette, I’ll take a break to play a game on my phone instead.”

And so, if you’re looking for a lesson to draw from the marshmallow test, don’t focus on the importance of teaching yourself or your children to delay gratification. Instead, focus on finding ways to exert control over your inner life. Mischel’s goal is “to keep living in a way one wants to live and work; to distract constructively; to distract in ways that are in themselves satisfying; to do things that are intrinsically gratifying,” he told the New York Times in 2014. “Melancholy is not one of my emotions. Quite seriously, I don’t do melancholy. It’s a miserable way to be.”