The Children and the Marshmallows
The little boy in the picture faces a difficult choice. He had two lollipops. Which should he eat first? The children in this experiment faces a much more difficult decision.
could begin this story with “Once upon a time there was a group of four-year-old children. Each child was offered a marshmallow…”But this is more that a story. It began with an interesting experiment.
In the 1980’s, Walter Mischel at Stanford University devised an interesting experiment to test the willpower of four-year old children. It was a simple experiment, so simple it could easily have been done by a high school student for a Science Fair Project.
The children were brought into a room, one at a time. The researcher gave the child a marshmallow and explained that they had a choice. They could eat the marshmallow now or, if they just waited until the researcher returned, they’d get a second marshmallow. One marshmallow now or two later. Most children agreed that two later seemed to be the better choice.
The researcher left the room and observed the children through a one-way mirror. Some children, as you might expect with four-year-olds, ate the marshmallow immediately. Some stared longingly at the marshmallow and then eventually gave up and ate it.
Some children, however, managed to wait until the researcher came back and they got their second marshmallow. The children who waited seemed to have a strategy to resist temptation. Instead of looking at the tempting marshmallow, they looked in other directions. They fiddled with their shoes. They behaved in ways that seemed to distract them.
Interesting but is this important?
The research shows that willpower is already developing in four-year-old children. It seemed to show that children who developed distraction strategies could wait longer. It did not explain why some children had more willpower than others. They did not followup a year later to see if the others had caught up. It was an interesting little experiment but didn’t seem significant until …..
The Second Chapter of the Story
Years later, the researchers manage to locate many of these children, now in or through college. The follow-up research was startling.
The children who, as four-year-olds, had waited for the second marshmallow:
- made higher scores on their SATs
- made better grades in school
- were more popular
- had better jobs and earned higher salaries
- gained less weight
- had fewer problems with smoking, alcohol or drug abuse
- and had more stable marriages.
This research by Roy Baumeister and Josh Tierney (Willpower, 2011, pp 10-11) showed how important willpower can be in all areas of our lives. It still does not, however, explain why some people have more willpower than others. It does not tell us if we our destined (perhaps by our genes) to have it or not have it. And it certainly gave no clues to indicate if willpower can be increased.