Start typing "the marshmallow test" into Google and suggested search terms include The Marshall Plan, New York City’s Marshal Hotel, Marshall Mathers (aka, Eminem), and the Marshall Tucker Band. I'm sure I could tie all of these together if I had the time, but I'm on deadline, so ...
The marshmallow test is actually shorthand for a study led by Walter Mischel that, in short, measured children’s abilities to delay gratification and how that tracks through their lives. They used marshmallows.
The marshmallow test has become a catchphrase for almost anything having to do with self-control or delayed gratification. Mischel has said in interviews, though, that he conducted the tests because he was interested in how people distract themselves from living through an uncomfortable situation — whether it's not eating a marshmallow, getting through the day after a breakup, handling grief, or quitting smoking.
It’s ok to question aspects of even foundational studies like the marshmallow test – in fact, it’s important to do so. But looking to poke tiny holes in one aspect of research doesn’t necessarily diminish the rest.
The study has come under closer scrutiny recently, particularly regarding socioeconomic influences on participants. A closer examination of the details marshmallow test doesn’t necessarily defend the common headline of the study – “If you don’t eat the marshmallow, you’ll be King” – as bulletproof or immune to these criticisms, but it does reveal some tools to forgo instant gratification and meet long-term goals.
The uses of these tools aren’t limited to kids avoiding sweets; they can also help anyone looking to save more or eat healthy and, for instance, teams of colleagues striving towards a challenging goal.
His test results, and all the ones that came tumbling after, coalesce into a common theme: It’s easier to forgo instant gratification and meet those longer-term goals if you have three things: trust, buy-in and, ultimately, a plan.
It’s easier to forgo instant gratification and meet those longer-term goals if you have three things: trust, buy-in and, ultimately, a plan.
Without trust that a second marshmallow will appear, there’s little point in waiting for it. Right? Little kids are a fairly trusting lot, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy to fool. (Although my daughter totally believed me when I told her that the Tooth Fairy didn’t work holidays, so that’s probably why her tooth was still under her pillow on July 5.) The Mischel tests accounted for trust by making sure that the testers weren’t strangers to the kids; they were people that the kids already knew and had relationships with.
A 2013 study tested the idea that a breakdown in perceived trust would affect the ability of children to resist temptation. First, researchers gave some paper and a box of used crayons to each kid and promised that if the child waited to use them, the researcher would bring a new box of crayons instead. (And who doesn’t love a new box of crayons?) In half the cases, the researcher “pretended” they couldn’t find the new crayons and said sorry, you have to use the old ones. The other kids got the new crayons they were promised.
When all of the kids then took the marshmallow test, the broken-promise group waited an average of only 3 minutes before eating the marshmallow, compared with 12 minutes for the other group. Breaking one promise led to a significant amount of uncertainty.
If you have built trust, and you can get buy-in, it’s very likely that commitment will follow.
If kids don’t care about marshmallows, or if patience isn’t the preferred course of action, they’re not invested in the idea that waiting for two marshmallows is somehow “better” than eating one. No buy-in means no follow through. Case in point, my teenager’s response to a thinly veiled marshmallow-test hypothetical:
“Imagine you’re in a room by yourself, and I put a bowl of Sour Patch Kids in front of you and leave. If you don't eat any of them before I come back, I'll give you a second bowl full of Sour Patch Kids. What do you do?"
"Mom, I'm not 5."
(She knew all about the marshmallow test! Has she been reading my copy of Thinking, Fast and Slow?)
"Okay, well anyway, what would you do?" I asked.
"I wouldn't care," she said. "Too many Sour Patch Kids make my tongue hurt. And anyway, if I wanted more I could just buy some."
So, no investment there. If we were talking about Vans, or American Eagle gift cards, it might be a different story, though, because a great way to generate buy-in is through peer pressure.
A 2018 study from the University of Colorado, Boulder looked at how peer pressure – or “social proof” -- affected the results of the marshmallow test. Each kid was made part of an imaginary group by being given a certain color T-shirt and shown photos of other “group members” (kids wearing similar shirts). Some were told that the other group members had already taken the test and had all been patient. Others were told that the other group members hadn’t been patient. A third group was told nothing. Kids in the first group – told others were patient – were twice as likely to wait for the second marshmallow.
Culture also matters for buy-in (which was part of the original criticism of Mischel’s tests, as they all involved kids whose parents were eligible, able and willing to send them to nursery school on the campus of an elite private university). A 2017 version of the marshmallow test compared kids from Germany and Cameroon. To distract themselves from eating the marshmallow, the European kids whined, cried, squirmed, played with their fingers and talked to themselves.
Many of the Cameroonian kids just sat quietly. Ten percent of them fell asleep.
In the end, 70% of the kids from Cameroon held out for the second treat, compared with only 30% of the kids from Germany.
This isn’t because kids from Cameroon are inherently more patient, said the researchers (who were from a handful of German universities). It's because in Cameroon, parents tend to teach early emotional control, particularly of so-called “negative” emotions. (So, no crying or whining.) And most of the children from Cameroon lived in houses with no running water or electricity, and were expected to help out with their family’s farms from a very young age. So, the researchers suggested, waiting 10 minutes for an extra treat was probably not a big deal.
If you have built trust, and you can get buy-in, it’s very likely that commitment will follow. And when people are committed to a goal — not eating a marshmallow, writing a book, losing 50 pounds — they are more likely to reach it if they have tools to help them.
A Plan For Distraction
The most obvious tools, if you’re trying to resist temptation, are strategies for distracting yourself. Kids who believe they’ll get a second marshmallow, and who’ve decided that’s of value to them, will show surprising creativity and discipline while trying not to eat the first marshmallow. They’ll cover their eyes so they can’t see the marshmallow. (At least one kid sat on the marshmallow… a creative if somewhat unsavory way to keep from eating it.) They’ll sing, fidget, tell themselves stories, count to 100. If there were toys or games in the room, the kids would certainly explore them to keep their mind off the marshmallow.
They are willing to live through uncomfortable moments to achieve something, and they find ways to make those moments less uncomfortable.
Adults do this too. Recent research from the University of Chicago shows that people who succeed at a long-term goal are good at finding other ways to gratify themselves during the course of reaching it. They’re not suffering through an anthropology class for a good grade; they’re finding something interesting to learn every day. Rather than slogging through another boring exercise class in order to lose weight, they find an activity they truly like to do, and people with whom they like to do it.
It’s ok to question aspects of even foundational studies like the marshmallow test – in fact, it’s important to do so. But looking to poke tiny holes in one part of research doesn’t necessarily diminish the rest.
Just one corporate marshmallow
Trust, buy-in and a plan to overcome distractions aren’t just for marshmallows and Sour Patch kids, but these are factors that impact employee engagement, goal completion, and focus. If we don’t trust our leadership, if we aren’t bought in to team goals, and if we are easily distracted, we’ll be stuck eating just one corporate marshmallow, while other organizations achieve their greater goals. (Editor’s note: Like finding a better phrase than “corporate marshmallow.” [Editor’s Editor’s Note: Our impatient editor came up that phrase.])