30 years later: The consequences of NOT eating a marshmallow

marshmallowsA little while back, I blogged about the famous Stanford Marshmallow experiment and the astonishing things it has taught us about the value of self-control. A quick description: preschoolers were placed alone in a room with a plate of marshmallows and told they could eat one now, or wait 15 minutes and have two.  (For a more detailed description of the experiment and it’s impact on the participants as they grew up, click here). 

The 30% kids who were able to delay gratification showed higher SAT scores and social competence as high schooler, and handled stress and self-organization better as adults. As a result, the study is frequently cited as an important demonstration of the value of self-control and willpower. This is important, because other studies have shown that self-control is something that can (and clearly should) be taught to young children.

An exciting new wrinkle in this study is additional research published by Tanya Schlam  at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, who followed up with the former preschoolers, (now in their 30s). As reported by Slate, Schlam and her colleagues discovered that each minute the subjects had been able to wait before devouring the marshmallow accurately predicted a “0.2 point percent decrease in their current body mass index. Schlam told Slate, “Although the effect was not particularly large, the presence of any effect three decades later is noteworthy,” she argues.

“It involves being more strategic,” Schlam wrote to me. “So a child can use will power to delay gratification, but they have a lot of other techniques at their disposal that they can combine with using will power. For example, from studies with this sample, we know that when the marshmallows are hidden by a tray or when the experimenter tells the kids to think about the marshmallows as ‘fluffy white clouds,’ the kids are able to delay much longer.” Kids who picked up the marshmallow and smelled it, on the other hand, soon gobbled it up. Delayed gratification, then, is about “knowing intuitively or being taught techniques that enable your cool system to kick in (which is reflective and rational) rather than the hot system (which is reflexive and impulsive).”

Schlam points out that the best route to self-control is to avoid having to exercise it: to stay away from trays of marshmallows and cookies. But since we live in a world of too much food, it’s a comfort to know that we can teach kids to hold back on their own. Even kids whose reason for delaying gratification is that they want a second marshmallow.

Self-control is about more than weight loss, of course. And weight loss for many is about more than self-control. But nevertheless, this new finding is exciting for the way it connects childhood behaviors with adult traits, and for the emphasis it places on teaching kids self-control.

So how can we teach our kids that kind of willpower? Some suggestions (feel free to add others):

  • Encouraging them to save up for toys or products they want. Or wait until their birthday/ holiday time to get them.
  • Letting even very young children make challenging choices between desired items on their own. (You can have a snack now, but then there is no dessert after dinner. OR You can buy that t-shirt now but then you won’t have enough money for the dress you’ve been saving for. )
  • Letting them experience the real consequences for their behavior: if you don’t do your homework now, you will have to do it after dinner when everyone else is watching TV/ playing outside/ going to bed.
  • Modelling self-control yourself.


2 responses to “30 years later: The consequences of NOT eating a marshmallow

  1. I love your blog, and you (of course), but this post irks me. Correlating self-control, achievement, social competence and eventual decreased Body Mass Index fuels some rather messed-up ideas about why self-restraint matters.

    Isn’t a marshmallow sometimes just a marshmallow?

    • riskwithinreason

      It’s a really good question, Katie. And an important conversation. You’re right, of course. There is an implicit assumption that a lower weight is more desirable and therefore a consequence of one’s self-discipline. As I say in the post, one’s body weight is about more than self-control and self-control is about so much more than weight. Sometimes a marshmallow is just a marshmallow, but the correlation is kind of interesting (not just with weight, but with SAT scores, job satisfaction, completion of high school and college degrees, etc.). What do you make of this finding, or do you think it just pointlessly perpetuates damaging assumptions about body size?