The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment and self control
Have I got a treat for you! Oooh, look — a big, fat, delicious marshmallow! Aren’t you dying to pop it in your mouth right this very minute?
But wait! If you can just hold out for 15 minutes, I’ll give you another marshmallow. I’ll leave you in a room alone with the first marshmallow to think about it.
Think hard. Your answer will tell a tremendous amount about your destiny — at least according to a psychological study from the ’70s. More than 40 years after it was first performed, the marshmallow study is being splashed all over the press, from The New York Times to Education Week, with experts arguing vociferously about how our children can develop more self-control.
I’m fascinated by the marshmallow study’s current popularity, no matter what the interpretation of the results. What does our current obsession with self-control say about us — and about our vision of a successful life?
The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment was originally done in 1972 by a Stanford professor named Walter Mischel, who as a child immigrated to America as a Holocaust refugee, watched his parents struggle as immigrants and learned the value of sitzfleisch, or the ability to apply your behind to your chair and work hard. Once grown, Mischel wanted to study this quality of sitzfleisch, so he constructed the now-famous marshmallow study in which preschoolers were offered one marshmallow or, if they waited 15 minutes, a second one. In the end, only about a third of the toddlers were able to hold out for the full 15 minutes, some of them using self-distracting techniques like covering their eyes with their hands or stroking the marshmallow as if it were a pet.
Mischel was only interested in these self-distracting techniques so that they could be taught to other children. But back in the “me” decade ’70s, a study on the ability to delay gratification didn’t penetrate the public consciousness.
The study didn’t rocket to fame until decades later, when follow-up studies showed that the kids who had held out for the full 15 minutes had higher SAT scores, used fewer drugs and were regarded by their parents as more “competent.” (They also, curiously, had a lower body mass index.)
That’s when the study went viral. Interestingly, when the results went wide, the interpretation leapfrogged way beyond Mischel’s intention of studying self-control techniques and went straight to the question of which children had become more successful in life. The actual data — the SAT scores, less drug use, parental descriptions of “competence” and body mass index — were often shorthanded into a single idea: that these gratification-delaying children had grown up to be more successful in life. The ability to delay gratification was re-branded as “grit.” Some schools developed a “grit” curriculum, with children receiving “grit” grades every semester.
When the follow-up studies hit the popular press, I was teaching at a high school in a very low-income neighborhood in South Los Angeles, and the results caused me to look at my students through a frightening, all-or-nothing lens. That kid up front dutifully writing the homework in her planner? A two-marshmallow kid for sure. The kid in the back daydreaming and flirting? Obviously a marshmallow-eater. Seeing as at any given time, about a third of our student body was flunking all or most of their classes, their lack of self-control began to seem like a terrible foreshadowing of the hopeless future before them.
Recently, though, scientists at the University of Rochester repeated the marshmallow experiment, throwing in a new variable: the trustworthiness of the researcher. Turns out that kids who didn’t trust the person offering the marshmallow were much less likely to wait the 15 minutes. Through a different lens, the marshmallow-eaters no longer looked like failures. They looked like skeptics or savvy adapters, especially in high-poverty situations when living situations were chaotic and food was sometimes scarce.
Through this lens, my failing students looked different too. Was it possible that their refusal to do homework was simply because, on a profound level, they didn’t trust me — or the school system? When we promised them the reward of college, knowing that more than half of them would end up at community colleges, where funding was slashed every year and students of color from low-income families have less than a 10 percent graduation rate after three years, were they wrong to think the reward might never come?
In reality, over time, a surprising number of my failing students have managed to turn their lives around and are now in college. On the other hand, unfortunately, a surprising number of my eager, disciplined students have dropped out of college and are now working minimum-wage jobs. Who knows why? They changed. Life happened. Who knows what’s ahead for any of us, really? We want so badly to be able to measure the qualities of a successful human being, but who are we to define what “success” means? Is it really as paltry as an SAT score? A parent’s seal of approval? Body mass index? I know people with inordinate amounts of self-control who have spent their lives delaying gratification, racing from accomplishment to accomplishment, but is this really a good life?
I can’t help thinking of T.S. Eliot’s 1915 poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” in which the narrator, afflicted with paralyzing self-consciousness, ruminates over his joyless life; he can hear the mermaids singing to each other but knows that they will never sing to him. “Do I dare to eat a peach?” he wonders, too gutless to bite into the juicy sweetness of life. How 20th century! Here in the 21st century, we would applaud his grit and encourage him to hold out for 15 minutes in the hopes of receiving two peaches.
As a compulsively disciplined person — how else would I have finished this article? — I, too, celebrate the value of sitzfleisch. But as a culture, what are we losing when we prize this quality above so much else? As a teacher, I watched helplessly as the arts were cut from education. My students sat patiently through hours of multiple-choice tests, but there was no place for conversation, for listening, for wonder, for joy. As we push our children harder and harder to stare at a marshmallow so they can build a marshmallow savings account, can we still leave a little time to hear the mermaids singing?