Revisiting the marshmallow test

The marshmallow test is a simple social-science tests that was developed by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel around six decades back. In this test a marshmallow is put before a child and they are told that they can have a second one if they can manage to wait 15 minutes before having the first one.

Image Credit: Enchanted_Fairy / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Enchanted_Fairy / Shutterstock

Children who are capable of waiting for 15 minutes before having the first one are supposedly more likely to be successful at school and then again in later life at work place. A new study has shown that some kids may be more likely to be successful in the marshmallow test than others.

Mischel and his team released the results of their study conducted in the 1990s in which they have administered the test to 90 children. These kids were then tracked later in life to see if they were successful. Children who understood delayed gratification or knew to wait for a good thing in order to achieve more were likely to score higher on standardized tests they found.

This latest study comes from Tyler Watts from New York University, Greg Duncan and Hoanan Quan from University of California and refutes the earlier studies. This new study is published in the latest issue of the journal Psychological Science.

The authors of the new study state the 90 children who took the test for Mischel were all pre-schoolers at the Stanford’s campus which is a prestigious one. To test the validity of the test they administered the test to over 900 children for the new study. These children were from different backgrounds, races, ethnicities, and parent’s financial, educational and socioeconomic status. This time the test was not so conclusive and did not predict accurately if those who took the test successfully were actually successful later in life.

The new study showed that the child’s ability to withhold from having the first marshmallow so as to wait for two was more associated with his or her socioeconomic background than later success. Those from a poorer family ate the first marshmallow straight away without waiting because they were scared they would not get another one if they waited too long and may be lose the first one as well. Food scarcity and lack of extra treats was one of the reasons for the choices, the authors note. The difference was clearly noted with rich kids who had more treats than they wished for and could wait for a second one with ease.

Lack of mother’s higher education had no association with the child’s ability to withhold from having the marshmallow and being successful later in life. Those whose mothers had a university degree and ate the first marshmallow as soon as it was offered were also at no risk of performing badly later in life.

So from this new study the psychologists theorized that it was the socioeconomic background that was more important in determining the likelihood of waiting for the second marshmallow rather than any long term behaviour trait that predicted success later in life.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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  1. Alex Grigs Alex Grigs United Kingdom says:

    If they wanted to re-conduct the marshmallow test then they should have take kids from very similar families and not the contrary. Otherwise the test has no relevance from "the marshmallow test" point of view.
    We cannot say that the old marshmallow test is contradicted. What they did is: how kids from different families are reacting to the marshmallow test? but this is not the marshmallow test itself!

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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