The famous Marshmallow Test and self-control

The famous Marshmallow Test and self-control

Psychology is a very interesting subject with full of simple yet very deep lying meaningful experiments. Of those experiments, Stanford Marshmallow Test is by far the most interesting test and is very simple and relatable experiment. Then a professor of Stanford University, psychologist Walter Mischel devised the Stanford Marshmallow experiment. The experiment was a series of studies on delayed gratification in 1960s and 1970s.

The first Marshmallow test was a study conducted by Walter Mischel and Ebbe B. Ebbesen at Stanford University in 1970. The original experiment took place at the Bing Nursery School located at Stanford University, using children age 4 to 6 as subjects. The children were led into a controlled room where  marshmallow was placed on a table, by a chair. The children could eat the marshmallow, the researchers said, but if they waited for fifteen minutes without giving in to the temptation, the would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. Mischel observed as some would “cover their eyes with their hands or turn around so that they can’t see the tray, others start kicking the desk, or tug on their pigtails, or stroke the marshmallow as if it were a tiny stuffed animal”, while others would simply eat the marshmallow as soon as the researchers left. In over 600 children who took part in the experiment, a minority ate the marshmallow immediately. Of those who attempted to delay, one third deferred gratification long enough to get the second marshmallow.


In the follow-up studies, Mischel found unexpected correlations between the results of the marshmallow  test and the success of the children many years later. The researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index (BMI) and other life measures. But it doesn’t mean that the marshmallow test is destiny and who fail it are failure in life. Instead the good news is that the strategies the successful pre-schoolers used can be taught to people of all ages. In fact it has been found that the emotive and cognitive skill set of self-control is eminently teachable particularly to the pre-school children.

By harnessing the power of executive function and self-control strategies, we can all improve our ability to achieve our goals .Although the desired amount of self-control is important in life, it doesn’t mean to spend the whole life self-controlling. According to Mischel, “a life that’s all self- control can be as dismal as a life without any self- control.”  As pointed out by Mischel there are two factors for self-control to be effective, one is the emotive and skill needed for self-control and the second one is the motivation.

Marshmallow Experiment is important in assessing out the children’s probability of getting into the addiction later in life and overall success they might achieve. But this is not definitive. It only shows the positive correlation of the children who could wait for 15 minute to get themselves rewarded for second marshmallow to their future performance in academics and in other areas. The study although hasn’t focussed on the children who demonstrated good executive control in the original Marshmallow test  but over the years they’ve gone down in self-control and those who start low and went high over the life course.
This test is simple yet to be applied easily at home and schools. The finding of the study can be applied in school to teach the children about self-control which optimises the opportunities in their life.

To read the interview of the experimenter, Psycholgist Walter Mischel click on the following link:

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