The Marshmallow Test Explains Why “Lazy” Millennials Are Actually Rational

The life-changing magic of empathy and zooming out

Karla Starr

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If you’re one of the few humans who hasn’t heard about the Marshmallow Test, here goes: a researcher at Stanford, Walter Mischel, tested kids’ ability to delay gratification. In his seminal study, he left kids alone in front of a piece of candy. If they could refrain from eating it until one of the researchers returned — about 15 minutes — they’d be ultimately be rewarded with two marshmallows.

According to the oft-repeated conclusions, being able to wait for the second marshmallow predicted higher SAT scores and more advanced careers. As adults, they were less likely to abuse substances or become obese — they even had longer-lasting relationships and better credit scores. The New Yorker ran a typically flattering and uncritical rundown:

The key, it turns out, is learning to mentally “cool” what Mischel calls the “hot” aspects of your environment: the things that pull you away from your goal. Cooling can be accomplished by putting the object at an imaginary distance (a photograph isn’t a treat), or by re-framing it (picturing marshmallows as clouds not candy).

But, wait for it: there’s more to predicting life outcomes than a single piece of candy. The study’s

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Karla Starr

Speaker & author x2, inc. Making Numbers Count (w/ Chip Heath). Behavioral science, cultural history, numbers.