That Famous 'Marshmallow Experiment' Got A Few Things Wrong

by Clint Edwards
LSOphoto / Getty

By now, we’ve all probably heard of “the marshmallow test.”

If you haven’t, here’s the gist: In the ’60s, a group of scientists at Stanford University took about 90 children at the Stanford Preschool and placed a marshmallow in front of their little faces. They told them that if they didn’t eat it for 15 minutes, they’d receive something better, usually a cookie. They recorded which children waited and which didn’t.

Then, over the next few decades, they watched the kids grow up and observed their development. By the ’90s, the researchers had come to some conclusions. The children who waited 15 minutes without eating the marshmallow, they said, were more successful — which they attributed to their obvious self-control at an early age.

I first heard about this study in junior high school from one of my teachers. He wanted us to learn a valuable lesson on self-control, which I must admit, I didn’t have much of at the time. I was a bit of a terror, having already visited the principal’s office more times than I had fingers and toes.

But what the teachers and administrators might not have known (or maybe they did) was that my father had left my mother a couple years earlier. Money was tight, and my older siblings were working to help pay the bills. My mom had a job at the power company during the day, and she cleaned houses at night.

There were days that I wasn’t 100% sure where my next meal was going to come from. And although I was much older than the children in the original study, I knew that if a marshmallow were placed in front of me, I would eat it immediately because who knew if the next reward would actually come. No doubt about it.

But then the fear of failure sank in. I wondered if I was destined to fail out of, well, everything because I clearly didn’t have self-control.

Flash forward to 2018, and naturally, new research is taking a closer look at that original study and its results. And what they are finding is poking a few holes in the original conclusions of the study. And I have to tell you, as a poor kid who would have eaten the marshmallow in an instant, I’m feeling some of the delayed gratification — just like those kids who waited for the marshmallow.

Researchers at NYU and UC Irvine recast the study, only this time with a much larger group, 900 children. They also made sure that the study population was representative of the overall US population, with varying race, gender, socioeconomic status, and parental education level. I mean, honestly, the original study took place at Stanford’s preschool. How diverse could the population have been?

So what did they find? Well, most importantly, this new study suggests that the ability to hold out for a second marshmallow is shaped, in large part, by a child’s social and economic background and not by self-control. In fact, background — not the ability to delay gratification — is what’s behind long-term success.

So let’s go back to my former, younger self. I would have grabbed that marshmallow because I wasn’t 100% sure when another marshmallow might come my way, regardless of what promises my parents, researchers, teachers, or anyone for that matter made.

But that’s the reality of being a poor kid. My parents made a lot of promises that, at the time, they honestly and truly thought they could keep. But then something came up, and the deal was taken off the table. As a child, I learned a lot about seizing the moment, and grabbing the first opportunity because the second might never come.

Ultimately, that’s what this study found. The Atlantic put it this way when discussing the poor children involved in this new experiment: “[D]aily life holds fewer guarantees: There might be food in the pantry today, but there might not be tomorrow, so there is a risk that comes with waiting. And even if their parents promise to buy more of a certain food, sometimes that promise gets broken out of financial necessity.”

So does this mean that we need to throw the whole idea of teaching our children the benefits of delayed gratification out the window? Well, not so fast. As a father, I don’t like that idea much. I think that teaching your children to wait for good things is a great life lesson. Patience and self-control are good attributes to have, after all. But they aren’t everything, and they don’t guarantee success.

But maybe the most important take-away from the research is that this marshmallow test that had been placed on a pedestal for so long failed to take a look at the whole picture. And perhaps instead of prioritizing things like self-control and delayed gratification as indicators of success, we should be taking a closer look at how we can level the playing field so that all kids (not just the ones with money) get a good shot at a good life.