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? 

Enrichment Briefs


Art and Yoga for Youngsters

The University of Judaism is hosting ArtYoga for youngsters this summer, a two-week program in July that combines art and physical discipline in way that helps kids learn self-awareness, self-control, empathy and empathy skills. Camp will culminate in an exhibit and demonstration.

July 11-22 at the University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive. For information call Jane Forelle, (310) 471-7105.

Summer: A Great Time to Get Healthy

With summer around the corner and barbecues and ice cream a daily occurrence, Kaiser Permanente is launching a “Get More Energy” campaign. Colorful, kid-directed posters — available to pediatricians, schools and camps — advise kids to get off the couch and play, eat lots of fruits and vegetables and to cut back on video games and TV time. Like Kaiser’s earlier “Broccoli” campaign, “Get More Energy” directs kids and educators to a Web site with articles and tip sheets on healthy living and eating.

For information go to www.kp.org/broccoli.

Special-Needs Camps for Adults, Kids

The Orthodox Union (OU) has openings in a range of summer programs for children and adults with physical and developmental disabilities through Yachad, the flagship program of OU’s National Jewish Council for Disabilities.

Adults 18 and older can join high school tours to Israel or Florida, and campers 9-21 can get the extra aid they need to spend the summer in mainstream Jewish camps on the East Coast.

A two-week summer vacation at a camp in Maryland still has some openings, but there’s no more space in the Summer Camp Vocational Program, where those with disabilities work in camp kitchens, canteens, offices or sports programs.

For information go to www.njcd.org, or call (212) 613-8229.

ADL Offers Free Trip to D.C. for High School Juniors

Applications are due June 3 for high school juniors (current sophomores) who want to participate in the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Grosfeld Family National Youth Leadership Mission to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Nov. 13-16.

The program — with all-expenses paid — brings together high school students of all races, religions and socio-economic levels to the nation’s capital to learn about the Holocaust and ways to fight prejudice in schools and communities. Students will be required to participate in ADL’s Dream Dialogue program for the 2005-2006 school year, which includes a retreat, quarterly meetings and community service projects.

For information call Jenny Betz at the ADL, (310) 446-8000, ext. 233, or e-mail coache813@aol.com.

Teens Get Their Shot at Israel Basketball Camp

When Aulcie Perry showed up in Israel in 1976, his goal was to work on his game in a summer league and get into the NBA, which had rejected him in the draft. Like so many who travel to Israel, the 6-foot-11 African American New Jersey native never looked back.

He led this year’s European champions, Maccabi Tel Aviv, to victory in the 1981 European Cup, the 1980 Intercontinental Cup, nine league championships and eight National Cups. Now, he runs sports institutes for kids in Tel Aviv, and this year he is adding a new one — Sal Stars, based in Givat Washington, a religious sports university near Ashdod. Perry will be joined by Jewish sports heroes Tal Brody and Tamir Goodman in the basketball, soccer and tennis clinic geared for observant teens ( but open to everyone) July 7-28.

For more information go to www.salstars.com and www.sal-stars.co.il.

New Camp and Retreat Center Opening

Southern California’s newest camp and retreat center is opening its doors for an open house later this summer, as the San Diego Jewish Community Camp and Retreat Center dedicates Camp Mountain Chai in Angelus Oaks. The Center purchased the camp in December, and will be open throughout the year for retreats and conferences. A residential camp will be open by summer 2006.

The Sunday, Aug. 28 open house will feature full use of the heated pool, ropes course, sand volleyball court and other sports facilities and hiking trails, as well as a keynote by Foundation for Jewish Camping President Jerry Silverman.

For information go to www.campmountainchai.com or call (858) 535-1995.

Briefs compiled by Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Education Editor

What’s the Beef?


A number of years ago, during the O.J. Simpson trial, I had a conversation with a non-Jewish merchant who told me that right after Simpson was arrested, he met a good friend of Simpson’s at church. At the conclusion of the service, the merchant happened to stand right behind this man as he thanked the minister for his homily and then asked him, "Reverend, would you please pray for O.J."

The minister replied, "Yes, of course. But let’s also pray for the victims as well."

Needless to say, this response outraged Simpson’s friend. He interpreted the comment as disparaging to Simpson. Due to his respect for the minister, however, he kept his feelings to himself and waited until he left the church to vent his feelings to anyone who would listen. He announced that he was so upset that he was going to write the minister a letter of protest.

After telling me this story, I asked, "Do you mean that the man restrained himself and did not tell his minister how he felt?"

The merchant replied, "Oh no! No one would ever beef a minister to his face. But just think of it. He had the gall to think he could write such a letter to him."

After allowing me to absorb this story, the merchant asked me, "Rabbi, do you ever have such problems with your members? Would any Jew dare write a letter to you?"

I simply answered "Oh no! Jews never write letters," and left it at that. I didn’t think it would enhance our stature if I told him the real facts.

Actually, as this week’s Torah portion illustrates, we Jews may have invented the art of "beefing," of telling someone off, especially when there is justice in the complaint.

The biblical beefing may have been spontaneous in its ultimate delivery, but it developed over a 21-year period during which time Laban systematically swindled Jacob. First, after Jacob worked loyally and cheerfully for seven years without pay to earn Rachel as his bride, Laban tricked him into marrying Leah. Next, after working for Laban for 14 years, Jacob could not call any of the fruits of his labor his own. As the father of a large family, this disturbed him so that he could not help but ask, "When shall I provide for my own house also?" (30:30).

Laban’s final deceit, his attempt to turn all agreements with Jacob to Jacob’s disadvantage, impelled Jacob to take his family in the middle of the night, without telling Laban, and leave for the land of Israel. Laban, as we know, gave chase, and finally caught up with Jacob’s camp. However, even when he hypocritically admonished Jacob for leaving in such a fashion, Jacob remained silent. Only after the wicked Laban ransacked Jacob’s belongings, finding nothing, did Jacob become angry and "took up his grievance with Laban" (31:36).

Jacob’s self control for 20 years, followed by a final indignant outburst against Laban, teaches all of us an instructive lesson: No matter how good a reason we have for anger, we must try self-control. Only when no other recourse remains, is anger an acceptable alternative.

Recently, a young man told me that ever since his father’s death he had felt a sense of guilt, because he doesn’t miss his father. It seems the father had been overly critical of his son. Nothing his son did was good enough. And now the son felt a weight had been removed from his shoulders. He came to me and asked if he was sinning for feeling this way.

I replied that inner feelings are not a sin; it is the actions we perform that count. I told him to learn from his father and judge everyone else with a good eye. Like the biblical Jacob, we must learn forbearance. Like Jacob, we must restrain from "beefing" our fellow man until there is no other alternative. If we can remember this lesson, we will find life itself so much more enjoyable.


Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.