The Atlantic

What the Marshmallow Test Really Teaches About Self-Control

One of the most influential modern psychologists, Walter Mischel, addresses misconceptions about his study, and discusses how both adults and kids can master willpower.
Source: Charles Dharapak / AP

The image is iconic: A little kid sits at a table, his face contorted in concentration, staring down a marshmallow. Over the last 50 years, the “Marshmallow Test” has become synonymous with temptation, willpower, and grit. Walter Mischel’s work permeates popular culture. There are “Don’t Eat the Marshmallow!” t-shirts and Sesame Street episodes where Cookie Monster learns delayed gratification so he can join the Cookie Connoisseurs Club. Investment companies have used the Marshmallow Test to encourage retirement planning. And when I mentioned to friends that I was interviewing the Marshmallow Man about his new book, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, nobody missed the reference.

It began in the early 1960s at Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School, where Mischel and his graduate students gave children the choice between one reward (like a marshmallow, pretzel, or mint) they could eat immediately, and a larger reward (two marshmallows) for which they would have to wait alone, for up to 20 minutes. Years later, Mischel and and a 30 years after their initial Marshmallow Test. Researchers discovered that parents of “high delayers” even reported that they were more competent than “instant gratifiers”—without ever knowing whether their child had gobbled the first marshmallow.

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