2015: Trick or Treat: The Marshmallow Test

Dr. Walter Mischel

Dr. Walter Mischel

AWARDEES: Walter Mischel, Yuichi Shoda, Philip Peake

SCIENCE: The Marshmallow Test

FEDERAL FUNDING AGENCIES: National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation

Dr. Walter Mischel was once told he would be better off asking a candy company to fund research on his “marshmallow test,” rather than the National Institutes of Health (NIH). But fifty years on, the renowned psychologist’s federally funded research—in collaboration with his colleagues Drs. Philip Peake and Yuichi Shoda—has had enormous and unexpected impact on our understanding of human development, self-control, education, and the complexity of human behavior.

The origins of Dr. Mischel’s idea for systematically testing young children’s ability to delay gratification can be found in his early experiments on decision-making and stereotypes that he conducted as a graduate student living for a summer in Trinidad. These studies showed the importance of trust in the promise-maker as a pre-condition for a child’s willingness to wait or work for delayed rewards. He also watched how his own young daughters handled “willpower” issues at the dinner table. Those experiences drove him to want to understand how and when children develop self-control.

NIH, not a candy company, funded Dr. Mischel’s work in the late 1960s—and for most of the 50 years since. He began the first experiments with a cohort of 3-5-year-olds at Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School. The preschoolers, one at a time, would join Mischel in the “Surprise Room,” where he would give them a choice: “Get one little treat now, or two if you can wait for me to come back.” Though researchers did not film the initial experiments, which involved some 900 children over several years, subsequent “marshmallow test” studies have been filmed and the results are equal parts fascinating, laugh-out-loud funny, and deeply touching. Some kids stare intently at their treat, while others sing songs, play with their toes, turn their backs, or invent elaborate imaginative scenarios and monologues—anything to distract themselves. And, of course, some simply cannot resist.

Dr. Philip Peake

Dr. Philip Peake

By varying the conditions of the experiment—whether the treat was visible or within reach, or what the experimenters suggested to the child to do or think while they left the room—Mischel and his colleagues learned that the way children think about their temptations profoundly influences their ability to delay gratification. These experiments opened a window into the cognitive skills and strategies that enable self-control, and revealed that they could be taught and learned more easily than usually assumed.

But it wasn’t until the late 1970s, with the help of Philip Peake, then Mischel’s graduate student at Stanford (now a professor at Smith College), that the unexpected power of the “marshmallow test” would become apparent. While working to organize and digitize the paper archives of the early delay experiments for a completely different NIH-funded research effort, Peake and Mischel recognized the exciting potential for a follow-up study of these preschoolers, most of whom were still part of their nearby Stanford community. At the time, this was purely curiosity-driven, but from that curiosity came groundbreaking results.

In their follow-up study, the researchers, joined by Dr. Yuichi Shoda (now a professor at the University of Washington), found, based on reporting by parents and teachers, that children who had been able to wait longer for their extra treat at age four (the “high delayers”) tended to show better adjustment in adolescence. They had more social and academic competence, were more able to handle stress adeptly, and persisted better in goal pursuit in the face of frustration. The researchers, joined by many collaborators across an array of disciplines, have followed these children now for more than 30 years. They have documented correlations between the ability to delay and life outcomes as diverse as SAT scores, body-mass index, the frequency of drug abuse, and measurable differences in brain functioning, which are visible thanks to modern functional MRI techniques.

Dr. Yuichi Shoda

Dr. Yuichi Shoda

But this is not a story of fate – of children’s long-term success being determined by their self-control as four-year-olds. It is a story about how children can change: those who are “low delayers” can in fact learn to be “high delayers,” and gain the life benefits that self-control imparts.

With support from NIH and the National Science Foundation (NSF), Mischel (who has been on the faculty of Columbia University for many years), Shoda, and Peake have pursued decades of research that has produced impressive advances in our understanding of the cognitive mechanisms enabling self control. They have found that high delayers employ a set of techniques—highly effective if sometimes amusing to watch—to help them avoid acting reflexively on their impulses and to delay gratification for greater but later rewards. Contrary to popular belief, these are not solely innate abilities, but skills that can be learned. They have turned low delayers to high delayers by teaching children to control their attention effectively or to develop and rehearse specific plans and strategies for self-control. And they have seen a subset of their experimental subjects transform themselves from low-delayers as kids to adults with similar life results to those who were high delayers.

These discoveries in behavioral research have changed the way we think about how self-control is achieved: from brute-force stoic will power to intelligent strategies that can be practiced and enhanced, and from an innate, fixed quality that you have or you don’t, to cognitive skills and mind sets that can be learned and taught. The findings have direct implications for how we approach parenting and educating young children, help people maintain good health, and even save more effectively for retirement.

This work continues to generate new questions at the intersections of behavioral science, neuroscience, and genetics. Today, Dr. Shoda is looking at how people can benefit from an awareness of the kinds of situations in which they excel at self-control and those in which they are most vulnerable to self-control failure. Dr. Peake is examining the prospects of training preschoolers in effective strategies for waiting and working for delayed outcomes. Dr. Mischel and others are working with organizations like the KIPP charter schools to incorporate successful delay and self-control techniques into their curricula. Collectively, they continue their collaboration on how self-control early in life relates to long-term life outcomes in the original participants in Mischel’s experiments.

And on TV, you can even find Cookie Monster using the same techniques to control his passion for chocolate chip cookies so that he can join the exclusive gourmet connoisseur cookie club. Which brings us full circle to the beginnings of this research. Cookie Monster has always been a low delayer, helping all of us understand how hard it can be to exert self-control. Because of these three Golden Goose Award winners, we now know that even Cookie Monster can learn to delay gratification.


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