Turns Out The Infamous Marshmallow Test Was Highly Flawed and Faulty
By Heather Callaghan, Editor
The often touted – but falsely interpreted – “marshmallow test” to determine future willpower and excellence should be the quintessential reason not to trust media-propagated studies.
We need to stop referring to the dubious “marshmallow test” – and this is why we should stop believing highly publicized studies from here on out.
For those who don’t know, the “marshmallow test” was a study that tested each young child participant alone in a room with a single marshmallow before them on a table. The study facilitator gave each child permission to eat the marshmallow while the facilitator left the room, but emphasized that if the child waited for the facilitator to return – s/he would receive another marshmallow. The facilitator would leave the room and return in 15 minutes. Obviously, some of the children ate the marshmallow immediately and some of them waited for their second marshmallow.
They followed the children into adulthood and prematurely determined – that the children who waited for that second marshmallow did better in life because they could hold off self-gratification. Essentially, more self-control was the key to a better life, career, etc…
Every single time I read a reference to this study in a self-improvement book or in some insipid TEDx talk, I absolutely cringed inside. First, I cringed at the thought of children’s behavior being tested this way as though there is some sort of fatal lack of self-control just waiting to be unearthed. After all, the children had to wonder at the judgements of the lab coat people. Secondly, I cringed at the idea that we’d all believe this lie that one solitary childhood action could mark your character for life. Lastly, we can all guess which “category” we would fall into and neither of them should make anyone superior or inferior, yet that is exactly the effect that the publication had on the world.
Jessica Calarco of The Atlantic reported on June 1, that, in a weird twist, a family’s socioeconomic status actually more to do with eating the marshmallow – rather than some inherent lack of will:
[…] a new study, published last week, has cast the whole concept into doubt. The researchers—NYU’s Tyler Watts and UC Irvine’s Greg Duncan and Hoanan Quan—restaged the classic marshmallow test, which was developed by the Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel in the 1960s. Mischel and his colleagues administered the test and then tracked how children went on to fare later in life. They described the results in a 1990 study, which suggested that delayed gratification had huge benefits, including on such measures as standardized test scores.Watts and his colleagues were skeptical of that finding. The original results were based on studies that included fewer than 90 children—all enrolled in a preschool on Stanford’s campus. In restaging the experiment, Watts and his colleagues thus adjusted the experimental design in important ways: The researchers used a sample that was much larger—more than 900 children—and also more representative of the general population in terms of race, ethnicity, and parents’ education. The researchers also, when analyzing their test’s results, controlled for certain factors—such as the income of a child’s household—that might explain children’s ability to delay gratification and their long-term success. Ultimately, the new study finds limited support for the idea that being able to delay gratification leads to better outcomes. Instead, it suggests that the capacity to hold out for a second marshmallow is shaped in large part by a child’s social and economic background—and, in turn, that that background, not the ability to delay gratification, is what’s behind kids’ long-term success[end]
These findings point to the idea that poorer parents try to indulge their kids when they can, while more-affluent parents tend to make their kids wait for bigger rewards. Hair dye and sweet treats might seem frivolous, but purchases like these are often the only indulgences poor families can afford. And for poor children, indulging in a small bit of joy today can make life feel more bearable, especially when there’s no guarantee of more joy tomorrow.
So there you have it. The gobbling of a marshmallow – or any future success this behavior is allegedly linked to – is not a native trait waiting to jump out of a child. It’s an understandably learned behavior that is born of the financial tone of the family, not inherent weakness as was propagated for decades.
Another prime example of a misconception that was built on a faulty study is the idea that when couples move in together, they are more likely to divorce. This one has been repeated ad nauseum for years. When, in actuality, the study was conducted on 18 and 19-year-olds who are already more likely to divorce simply because they are young, and perhaps do not fully know themselves.
But we don’t get that information from repeated slogans and headlines.
Maybe these past mistakes can help hone our critical skills.
What do you think of the marshmallow test? Are there any famous studies that irk you? Sound off below!
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