Marshmallow Test: Delaying Gratification in Childhood Predicts Adult Success (LIP)

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Note: This post originally appeared over at LinkedIn Pulse. LinkedIn is a social networking site supporting the world of business. LinkedIn has a blog service known as LinkedIn Pulse. As such, this post presents information on Bowlbian attachment theory and related subjects that may be a review for regular BLT readers. Click on this link to read this article over at LinkedIn.

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In the 1960s, psychologist Walter Mischel developed the Marshmallow Test. Mischel chronicles the 50 year history of the Marshallow Test in his 2014 book entitled The Marshmallow Test—Mastering Self-Control. During a Marshmallow Test, researchers place marshmallows (or other treats) in front of kids around age six or seven and then give the following direction: “You can eat one marshmallow any time after I leave the room if you wish, however, if you wait until I come back then you can have two marshmallows.” On average kids are made to wait about twenty minutes before the researcher returns. And of course the children are observed using a one-way glass partition.

The Marshmallow Test is designed to assess for the psychological dimension known as “the ability to delay gratification.” Delaying gratification is one of the Executive Function skills. Other Executive Function skills include appropriately focusing attention, appropriately shifting attention, empathy, mental modeling, planning, and mental time travel (of which delaying gratification is a part as we will see below). Researchers conduct longitudinal studies by tracking a group over a long time horizon, say, from childhood to adulthood. Yes, researchers have conducted longitudinal studies with kids who have taken the Marshmallow Test (as talked about in Mischel’s book). Here’s where the Marshmallow Test story gets very interesting.

According to these longitudinal studies, kids who are able to delay gratification (e.g., are able to wait for the researcher to return in order to double the size of their reward) go on to have more successful lives. High delayers (as researchers call them) typically go on to secure for themselves such things as higher levels of education, higher levels of retirement funds, and higher levels of relationship satisfaction as compared to low delayers (e.g., those kids who eat the marshmallow soon after the researcher leaves). Researchers have gone so far as to show that each additional minute of delay during the Marshmallow Test (from zero up to twenty minutes) translates to additional increases in such things as aptitude test scores (i.e., the SAT), cognitive function levels, and ratings on sociability scales as measured during the teen years.

In sum, the Marshmallow Test is a robust predictor of future life success. “At age 27–32, those who had waited longer during the Marshmallow Test in preschool,” writes Mischel, “had a lower body mass index and a better sense of self-worth, pursued their goals more effectively, and coped more adaptively with frustration and stress.” Mischel goes on to suggest that prolonged and chronic stress tends to adversely affect development of the PFC (prefrontal cortex) of the brain, home to the Executive Function skills. “Prolonged stress impairs the PFC,” writes Mischel, “which is essential not only for waiting for marshmallows but also for things like surviving high school, holding down a job, pursuing an advanced degree, navigating office politics, avoiding depression, preserving relationships, and refraining from decisions that seem intuitively right but on closer examination are really stupid.”

If the above wasn’t enough for you, turns out that there is a close relation between the Marshmallow Test and the Strange Situation Assessment (again, talked about in Mischel’s book). The Strange Situation Assessment is used by attachment researchers to assess for attachment patterns and functioning in toddlers. Toddlers who are assessed as being securely attached at one-and-a-half to two years of age typically go on to be high delayers as measured by the Marshmallow Test. Mischel reveals, “The self-control strategies that children develop are shaped by their attachment experiences with caretakers from the start of life.” This goes along with information coming from the world of Bowlbian attachment research: securely attached kids typically go on to develop the ability to appropriately regulate emotion. [1] As a result, securely attached kids generally do not experience prolonged and chronic stress, which, in turn, allows for proper development of the PFC. It would appear that there are connections (possibly a continuum) that hold together attachment, affect regulation, and delaying gratification.

So, what does the above mean for the world of business? Well, look at the number of things high delayers (as measured by the Marshmallow Test) enjoy that have business implications: higher achievement scores, higher educational attainment, larger retirement funds, increased ability to hold a job, increased ability to navigate office politics, increased ability to maintain relationships, and increased ability to avoid depression. One way to reframe the ability to delay gratification is to look at it as an ability to value the future, that is to say, engage in mental time travel (as mentioned above). When kids delay gratification (and not engage in instant gratification) they are placing value on the future (the future reward of more marshmallows). When a person decides to take on the long and arduous task of earning a college degree, they are valuing the future (the future rewards a degree could bring). When a person places an amount of money into a retirement account of some kind, they are valuing the future (the future reward of having a comfortable life in retirement). When a person makes certain sacrifices for their company or business, they are valuing the future (the future sense of achievement building a company or business brings). To value the future one must be able to appropriately imagine the future and imagine themselves in that future. When an adult asks a child “What do you wish to be when you grow up?” that adult is encouraging the child to engage in mental time travel, to see themselves in the future.

So, what can human resource personnel do in order to find high delayers? HR personnel already ask future oriented questions during job interviews when they ask a question like, “Where do you see yourself in ten years?” [2] HR personnel should pay attention to the quality of the answer a prospective employee gives to this question. Answers that are vague, non-specific or contain idealizations (i.e., “I want to be hugely successful”) may indicate that the future is not well valued or well thought out. HR personnel can ask questions concerning retirement planning, especially if the company has a retirement program. A prospective employee who has given little to no thought about retirement planning, or plans to not participate in the company’s retirement program, may not place much value on the future. HR personnel could ask a prospective employee to explain his or her success. Look then for a focus on valuing attachment relationships with such figures as parents, family, teachers, mentors, etc. It’s probably no coincidence that many book dedications focus on family, close friends and colleagues. If all else fails, you could always put a bowl of marshmallows on your desk.

Before I end, I just want to mention Warren Buffett’s efforts to promote financial literacy. The following link will take you to his web site Secret Millionaires Club, a web site designed to promote financial literacy in children. Buffett’s efforts in the area of financial literacy support the idea that if kids are not natural high delayers, they can learn to be high delayers by learning to make life investments for the long term. Buffett’s web site has resources for parents. If parents wish to encourage the ability to delay gratification in their children, teaching financial literacy is a great place to start. My father had me start a savings account when I was five or six. This was back in the days when banks issued passbooks that looked like an old style passport. My father made a point of bringing me each month to our local bank branch and having me hand my passbook to the teller. The teller would then slide my passbook into a fancy typewriter that would print my earned interest and then the new balance in my savings account. My father wished for me to get viscerally and tangibly the power of compound interest. This easy but important lesson in financial literacy (and there were others) has stayed with me for my entire adult life. Thanks Dad. Now, can I have my two marshmallows….


[1] See the work of attachment researcher Allan Shore in the area of attachment and affect regulation.

[2] For a comedic send-up of this often used job interview question, see the 2015 movie The Intern. 70-year-old intern Ben Whittaker (played by Robert De Niro) is asked this “10 year” question during a job interview and assumes a facial expression that seems to say, “I hope alive.”