Why I Hate the Marshmallow Test

Maybe you’ve heard of the marshmallow test.  It’s a perennial favorite of people who write about how things that happen in childhood can predict everything that matters about your future. You can read about it in the Atlantic, in the New Yorker, in the Times, or at CNN, or listen to a podcast on it at Radiolab.  The Wall Street Journal uses it as a metaphor for Obama’s budget in 2012.  KQED recently wrote about “A ‘Marshmallow Test for the Digital Age.”

Basically, a researcher puts a marshmallow down in front of a kid and says, “I’m going out of the room now.  You can eat this right now or you can wait.  If you can wait until I come back, then you can have TWO marshmallows.”  Here’s an adorable video of some kids trying to resist temptation:

The first experiments (paywall) were conducted in the 1960s and 70s by Walter Mischel at Stanford.  Researchers followed up with participants years later, and found that their ability to “delay gratification” (wait for the marshmallow) predicted higher SAT scores, lower body mass index, less crack cocaine use, higher sense of self worth, and just better coping ability (all summarized in this article, which also has a paywall).  Basically, waiting for the marshmallow at 4 meant you were winning at life at 34.

What frustrates me about the buzz around the marshmallows is that it gets treated, in a shorthand way, as though kids either “pass” or “fail” the marshmallow test, and that presages whether they will pass or fail all kinds of future tests.  Mischel himself does not conflate behavior in the experiment with passing/failing, but others seem to hold it up as proof that waiting is a virtue and some kids don’t have it as young as preschool.

But as my favorite professor likes to say, kids make sense.  We can’t treat the kids who reach for that marshmallow as though they are unable to delay gratification.  What if they are just using a sensible strategy to achieve gratification based on what they have experienced in life?  Sure, if all the grown-ups I have ever met tend to follow through on their promises to me–the dentist really does give me a prize after a cleaning, my mom really does read me a story after I brush my teeth–then I totally believe this random adult who has come into my preschool to offer me treats.  But what if the adults in my life typically don’t, or can’t, despite their best efforts, come through for me?  What if my mom promised we wouldn’t change schools again but then unexpectedly got laid off so we had to move?  What if my dad always says he’ll play catch with me after dinner but then seems to have urgent emails every night?  Or even if I know I can trust my parents, maybe I’ve learned not to depend on people outside the family for my happiness.  All I know now is, there is a marshmallow right in front of me.  Who knows if this guy is really going to come back in with another one?  What if he even takes this one away?  Isn’t a bird in hand worth two in the bush?

Then, on through life, so it goes.  The instability continues, and so does the logic that it’s better to have something good now than to plan for something that may never materialize.  I’m just imagining examples here: As a kid, Jamal was frequently suspended from preschool, teaching him that his routine could be disrupted at any time.  As he grew up, he was told that if he worked hard, he could get a good job, yet employers never seem to respond to his resume.  He has a lower sense of self-worth.  Leila and her mom kept having to move from apartment to apartment to follow the jobs.  This made her mistrust the future in preschool, and made her miss the SAT prep course offered at one high school she briefly attended.  Lee developed a sweet tooth as a kid when food was in short supply at his house.  He learned to eat whatever was in front of him as soon as it was available, and to down sweets in particular before his brothers got them.  Now as an adult, he wants to exercise and be healthy, but his neighborhood has no parks, grocery stores, or safe areas to work out.  He has a high BMI.  In all these (totally fictional) examples, the instability causes both the marshmallow eating and the later worse life outcomes.  Not delaying gratification is what makes sense in these contexts.

Mischel talks about this in the New Yorker piece.  He points out that what happens outside the home definitely affects kids’ ability to delay gratification.  My favorite line is this, about parents: “do they make waiting worthwhile?”  Exactly.  If your parents, or your life circumstances, mean waiting makes no difference, or even makes you worse off, then waiting is not a reasonable behavior.

This great Slate piece talks about a more recent experiment that attempts to test this idea.  They placed kids in either “reliable” or “unreliable” scenarios, where adults either came through for them or didn’t, and then gave them the marshmallow test.  Guess who didn’t wait very long?  Those kids weren’t unable to delay gratification–they were sharp kids who had learned how the world around them worked.  Kids make sense!