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 problems went unnoticed/undiscussed for years.

“With the marshmallow waiting times, we found no statistically meaningful relationships with any of the outcomes that we studied,” UCLA Anderson’s Daniel Benjamin.

In attempts to replicate the original finding, “the correlation almost vanished when Watts and his colleagues controlled for factors like family background and intelligence.”

While Mischel had us all thinking that Waiting → Success, the real formula is Coming from a Successful Family → Success.

The Other Marshmallow Test

A similar study from 1970 observed children from disadvantaged homes. Those kids were much less likely to wait (3/15 waited, compared to 11/15 kids whose parents weren’t on welfare). After that initial trial, the impulsive kids were actually shown that additional candy — real life proof of what they would have…

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Karla Starr

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