Friday, January 28, 2011

The Toxic Marshmallow

Imagine that you are 4-years old, and that your parents have volunteered you for a research study that will cause you to experience a most excruciating kind of pain. A researcher leads you into a room and sits you at a table. A marshmallow is placed in front of you. The researcher explains that you will be left alone with the marshmallow, and if you decide you want to eat it, you need only to ring the bell. If you do, the researcher will return. You will eat the marshmallow and your trial will be over. However, if you choose not to ring the bell, and to hold off on eating the marshmallow, the researcher will return and give you a second marshmallow.

There you sit, with the sticky sweet marshmallow on the table, under your nose. You can see it, smell it, and practically taste it. Of course you want two of them. You are 4-years old. You need two of them. The question is how will you survive 15 minutes of child-torture to claim the jackpot?

I watch you through the one-way window. I see you sizing up the marshmallow. I see you fidgeting in your chair. You are desperately trying to wait. I want you to wait. I am rooting for you.

I would like to tell you about the little boy before you. He didn’t just look at the marshmallow; he focused on it. Was he stoically testing his will power? Did he think that his desire would wane?

A little girl, before him, seemed to know the power of the marshmallow. From the very beginning, she knew that she was no match for its power. She got out of her chair and crawled under the table. Then she sang songs from Sesame Street.

15 minutes passed quickly for her. The researcher returned to the room and awarded her the second marshmallow. Not so for the little boy. The seconds crawled by, and after 30 of them, he rang the bell.

I have given you the clues to solve the problem. Now you will need a strategy. If you choose a strategy that keeps the marshmallow on your mind, you will most likely fail. If you choose a strategy that distracts you from thinking about the marshmallow, you will probably succeed.

But, what does it matter? One marshmallow or two. What is the big deal?

Psychology professor, Walter Mischel first conducted his famous marshmallow experiments on 4-year olds in the 1960s. When he later followed up on his subjects, as teenagers, he found that the high-delayers -- those who could wait 15 minutes -- had S.A.T. scores that were, on average, more than 200 points higher than those who could wait only 30 seconds.

By knowing how to delay gratification, the high-delayers studied harder, and avoided getting into trouble. They got into better schools and they went on to get better jobs. They also had better personal relationships.

The low-delayers -- the kids who were not able to delay gratification for 15 minutes -- were more likely to grow up making life-damaging choices like dropping out of school, abusing drugs or alcohol, and even committing crimes.

Imagine that you are a teenager sitting at home, after school, staring at a boring textbook and struggling to get through the chapters that need to be read and digested by the next school day, and the phone rings. Your friends are getting together right now. You hear the fun and laughter in their voices. You want to be with them. You can be with them. It’s as easy as ringing a bell.

The good news is that Mischel and his researchers found that they could teach kids how to ignore the marshmallow. One way is to pretend that the marshmallow isn’t real, but is actually just a picture of a marshmallow. You look at it and imagine a picture frame around it. You can make the marshmallow lose its power over you. There are plenty of effective strategies, but for most kids, such strategies have to be learned, developed, and practiced.

The bad news is that only about 30 percent of Mischel’s marshmallow kids found a way to last the 15 minutes.

I had never heard of Walter Mischel or his classic marshmallow experiments until I read an article in 2006 by New York Times columnist, David Brooks, titled: Marshmallows and Public Policy.

In it, he suggests that policy makers miss the mark when they try to improve education exclusively “with structural remedies,” such as reducing class sizes, creating more charter schools, and increasing teacher pay, instead of asking the core questions, “such as how do we get people to master the sort of self-control that leads to success?”

Wanting to know more on this subject, I found an article written by Jonah Lehrer, in 2009, in The New Yorker, titled, Don’t! Lehrer tells us a lot more about Walter Mischel and the original marshmallow experiments, and takes a closer look at more recent versions of those experiments, conducted by Mischel and by other researchers.

Lehrer also takes a look at one highly successful program -- the KIPP network of charter schools -- that delivers the “structural remedies,” such as excellent teachers, enlightened administrators, and long, rigorous school days, while also addressing the “core questions” by teaching the benefits of self-control. KIPP has grown to 99 schools across the U.S., all located in inner city neighborhoods, where kids who are left on their own, are more likely to become gang members or be killed by stray bullets than to go to college.

So, when I asked you to imagine that you were 4-years old, and to put yourself in the room with the marshmallow and the bell, how did you do? I will confess to you right now that I do not know if I would have lasted the 15 minutes.

But I do know this: we are all marshmallow-tested throughout our lives. Why should we wait, when we can have it now? Why save up for a new car, when we (as a television commercial tells us) can drive it out of the showroom for just our signature?

We can certainly own that new car, or new boat, or even a new home, without actually being able to afford it. It’s easy. We just borrow the money. Actually, as far as the home is concerned, we can’t borrow that money nearly as easily as we might have just a few short years ago, you know, before the economy fell off the cliff.

But, back in the good old low-interest-rate days of 2002 to 2005, all we needed to unlock the magic gate to the Good Life was to be a homeowner. By owning our own home, we had a lot more than just a roof over our head; we had that special something called equity. That nest egg, that pot of gold, had increased in value like clockwork, year-in and year-out. And betting that it would continue to increase like clockwork was the safest bet we could ever make.

Really, how can you lose owning real estate? After all, everyone needs a place to live. The population is growing, not shrinking, so demand always exceeds supply. It’s practically a law of nature.

But there is a huge problem with sitting on that kind of pot of gold. You can’t see it, or touch it, or hear it, or smell it, and most importantly, you can‘t spend it. So it’s entirely possible, in these good old days of 2004 and 2005 to feel that you are slogging through life, stuck in the mud of being house rich and cash poor.

So for god’s sake, listen to your friends and neighbors, and bankers. Actually, you can’t help hearing them. Their voices are loud and constant. Stop being a chump! Life is short. Opening the gate to the Good Life has never been easier.

You deserve that Caribbean cruise that has for years been at the top of your wish list. Smell that salt air! Taste that champagne! You will return refreshed and restored.

Your kitchen is an absolute embarrassment. How many years have you been talking about the new granite countertops, which will not only be breathtakingly beautiful, but will increase the resale value of your home?

You dream of that winter condo on a golf course in Arizona. Practically speaking, you can’t afford not to buy it. It’s an investment. While you’re walking the fairways, the equity will be piling up.

Go ahead and take the money. It belongs to you. Stop fidgeting in your chair. You had better sign the paper, before the rate goes up. If you snooze, you lose.

Why are you hesitating? Do you think that tomorrow the sun won’t come up? Do you think that by 2007, the housing bubble will burst, buyers will disappear, prices will plummet, and one-third of your pot of gold will vanish, as though it never existed?

And then what? Your adjustable rate mortgage will reset to a higher interest rate, and you won’t be able to make the payments on both the condo and your home, so you put the condo up for sale, but now there aren’t any buyers, so you have to let the bank take the condo?

And are you worried that by 2008, a Great Recession, caused by colossal greed, recklessness, and stupidity will come along and cost you your job, and you will no longer be able to make the payments on your home, which by now, is worth less than you owe on it, so, in desperation, you and your family move-in with your parents, who have just downsized into a smaller home, where they were about to begin enjoying the retirement for which they had so carefully and patiently planned?

Is this what’s worrying you? Do you honestly think you could lose everything?

So, do you not grab your easy terms, pre-approved ticket to the Good Life?

How do you resist? How do you distract yourself from thinking about the rich granite, the balmy salt air, and the tantalizing view of the 18th green?

It is now 2006, and the housing market has slowed down -- way down. Home buyers are disappearing, prices have stopped rising, and in some areas, they‘ve actually begun falling. But that sticky-sweet loan application is still on the table. There is still time to pull the trigger, to grab the money, to ring the bell.

If you had been one of those, sitting at that table, I hope you did not do it. I hope that you did not borrow in order to buy what you could not afford. I hope you waited.

And I wish others had too.

At the KIPP school in Philadelphia, students were given tee-shirts, bearing a slogan: Don’t Eat The Marshmallow. KIPP kids became walking billboards, imprinting the minds of each other with a message that could possibly save their lives.

Even now, in 2011, it is too soon to know exactly how many lives were lost in the greatest economic unraveling since the Great Depression, and we will never know how many of those lives could have been spared, if only they had gotten the right message.


  1. Sometimes I feel sooo sorry for those who lost their homes or on the brink of losing them. Sometimes my sympathy is hard to come by, because they signed the papers to buy something they couldn't afford in the first place. Sometimes though, I'm resenting the fact that I am still staring at the marshmallow and not enjoying the good life like everyone else is. From this resentment I go back to sympathy because I know how hard it is not to take the plunge.

    There is another kind of reward not to wait though. If you own a big corporation, you can take the marshmallow away from others and roll it into a gigantic sweet sphere for yourself while you're ruining the lives of others. Depression doesn't affect you anyway.

  2. Wow, you hit the nail right on the head with this one! I remember studying the marshmallow experiment in college. I think delaying gratification goes along with what I believe (not always follow, btw) - in that we need to slow down, calm the monkey chatter and really listen to our higher selves. Too often we lack impulse control, when all it would take is to sit STILL and LISTEN to know what is most important to us. Unfortunately we sit still and listen - to the television. Which is constantly hawking stuff it says we need to be happy and fulfilled. It's a viscous circle.

    Well done!

  3. I had never heard of the marshmallow experiment either. As I read your post it all rang true, yet I would have never thought of any of it without reading about the experiment. Unfortunately so many people did take that marshmallow after 30 seconds.

    I love it when somebody makes me think... Great Post!!

  4. Bruce, Please delete my other comment! I Felt this entry had so much that could make people think, that I referenced it on my FaceBook page. I would rather not bother with my other comment please. Your piece made me think, both about what would have been far WORSE had I not kept up with this house that is going DOWN in value... it would have been far worse. It also makes me think about tutoring--a tutor tends to have to work on the issue you talk about, one on one... how to get a child to value waiting, to believe that waiting for a second marshmallow or maybe even something BETTER is worth it. Especially when you are talking about learning what is difficult. Anyway, thanks for another great piece of writing.

  5. Wow, Bruce! What a superb piece- one of your best me thinks. The topic reminds me of my degree dissertation, which was all about impulsivity. Fasinating.

    I don't know what my 4 year old self would have done in the marshmallow experiment. I honestly don't know. I like to think i would have waited but i sure liked sweets when i was little! hehe

    Great post, worth the wait. :)

  6. Many years ago, my grandfather rewarded me with a concept that I have followed most of my life. I admit that from time to time I enjoy spending money like a drunken sailor. However, I never seem to get into trouble for one simple reason. I follow the Italian Shoebox Theory. It is quite complicated, but please do not share it with others, especially Americans, who will not understand it anyway.

    Here's how it works. Imagine you have a shoebox with money in it. Now, imagine you want to buy something that costs $11.00. You look in the box and notice you have $10.00. Don't buy it. Suppose you wish to purchase something for $9.00 and you look in the box and see $10.00. You can buy it, if you wish.

    I know it's a bit complicated, but it actually works. If you do not have the money, it's not yours even if you buy it. I'm going to my house now to get some rest. Thanks, Nonno.

  7. Sarah, When it comes to breaking down the causes and effects of this economic meltdown, it's easy for all of us to get caught up in a whirlwind of thoughts and feelings. I relate to everything you just said.

    However, while we can't control the actions of banks and big corporations, we can control our own actions, so stop looking at that damn marshmallow.

  8. Jeannette, I linked to The New Yorker article by Jonah Lehrer. It contains a wealth of information that might come in handy in your tutoring. And I am glad that you held on to your home. So, what exactly are you telling people on facebook?

  9. Nancy, I agree with your approach -- the STILL and LISTEN strategy. For it to work, someone has to teach (most) kids that there is a Higher Self. Easier said than done?

  10. Bendigo, It hit me the same way when I read the David Brooks article in 2006. As with you, it all made sense. And, yes, it does make one think.

  11. Thanks Lou. The more I think about it, the more I think that the 4-year old me would have grabbed the marshmallow. And, while I have nothing to base this on, I think that 4-year old girls probably do better than 4-year old boys. Did anything come up in your research to support my hunch?

  12. JJ, The Italian Shoebox Theory (complicated as it is) works for me. I am going to cut up my credit cards...tomorrow.

  13. Bruce, I have long despaired over the fact that so many people borrow money they can't afford, to buy things they don't need. 'The Italian Shoebox Theory' is the way to go.

  14. Thanks Martin. I will put you down as another vote for the wise advice of JJ's grandfather.

  15. I am telling them that your blog is worth reading and thinking about and that they might enjoy the rest of your writing as well and referred them to the previous piece. And three of my friends read your article already--as well as "Just enough Death..." So there.

  16. Thank you for such a thought provoking post. Around the beginning of 2006 I had a realtor say to me "let's see what we can get you into," regarding houses that were completely out of my range (as in 3-4 times what I could afford) on my modest salary. Thankfully it never happened or I would definitely been one who lost their home to the bank.

    thank you again.

  17. McCaffery, It didn't happen, because you didn't grab the marshmallow.

  18. I can't imagine that I would have been able to wait the 15 minutes. And yet, I did manage to get a PhD and I never was seriously in debt. But then, I am a sample of one.

  19. 20th Century Woman, I think you would have waited. Just a hunch.

  20. I enjoyed reading about this study and how it continued to track the subjects into their late thirties. I ended up printing out The New Yorker article "Don't!" so I could learn more about the experiment. It intrigues me to learn about the mechanics of our it weaves its influence if we allow we (dependent on our makeup) either know or not know that we have the power to override it. I'm looking forward to sitting with a cup of tea in my reading chair and enveloping myself in this.

    Thank you.

  21. Jadelia, Thank you for joining my blog and for leaving your comment. I'm sure you will enjoy the Jonah Lehrer article.

  22. And here in adolescent ignorance I sit spectating, the pain and turmoil of my parent's generation.
    Watching intently, X and Y, do they not make the same mistakes?

  23. When my son, Joey, began teaching school, he was given mentally challenged and at risk teens to teach. He devised his own teaching plans for these students. The mentally challenged teens were always in class unless they were sick. The at risk teens were the real challenge. Joey had to think of ways to keep them coming to class, and one of the things he did was to dress in bizarre outfits every day. These kids showed up just to see what he would be wearing, and they stayed because he made the classes too interesting to miss. When his wife received a full scholarship to work on her Master's degree at the University of Kentucky, Joey prepared a video as his resume. He interviewed school officials, teachers, and students. When he showed us the video, I cried, because one of the at risk students said that were it not for Joey, he wouldn't be graduating. He said that Joey had made it easy for him to stay in school. He said that Joey was not like a teacher, he was like a brother. I think all Joey's students would pass "The Marshmallow Test"

  24. You make a very important point very well Bruce. Nowadays, most people want their "marshmallow" immediately and cannot resist the blandishments of advertisers who tell them that they can have what they can't afford, and have it now.

    You didn't say whether Professor Mischel performed any kind of cognitive tests on his four-year-olds prior to exposing them to the marshmallows, because correlation (in SAT scores) isn't necessarily causation. I worked a lot with mentally handicapped students when I was younger, and I found that delay of gratification was a difficult concept for most to grasp, so I'm suggesting that those who resisted the marshmallow were probably the smarter kids to start with.

    The other point I'd make is that it's unlikely that a contemporary university ethics committee would sanction such an experiment. Quite a few iffy psychology experiments were conducted in the 1960s, including the Stanford 'prison' experiments and Stanley Milgram's 'torture' experiments. Mischel's experiments with the marshmallows would probably be regarded as 'damaging' nowadays.

  25. I really enjoyed the article, Coltin. The more I read about the mind and the skills that people can learn to overcome the mindspeak that diverts us from our focus, I am intrigued and need to learn more. Metacognition...strategic allocation of attention...thinking about thinking...all boils down (according to the article) as the following: "Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can begin to increase it." Ah, now I need to do more research on that concept on the database that I subscribe to. I love it. Thanks again.

  26. Judie, Any chance of seeing Joey's video resume? If you post it on your blog, it will go viral. What a great teacher!

  27. Dennis, About those iffy experiments of the 1960s - Mischel was at Harvard when Timothy Leary was doing his Psilocybin Project. It wasn't Mischel's cup of tea. He moved on to Stanford. The New Yorker article that I linked to tells about more contemporary experiments, where the subjects' I.Q. is figured into the experiments.

    Thank you for the excellent comment.

  28. Jadelia, Please let us know what you come up with in your research.

  29. Bruce, I will ask him if he has a cd of it, or if he can have one made to send to me. If someone can walk me through the steps to get it on my blog, I will!

  30. Wow! Reading your post is a test of patience by itself. It's long huh. It leaves room for discussions on subtopics. Regarding patience on a scientific or medical point of view, it could ramify to the topic of ADHD. Do you know that 40% of inmates/prisoners have ADHD (Attention-deficit Hyperactivity Disorder? Hence the tendency to resort to criminal activities. These people lack patience. When you mentioned the marshmallow test I remembered the Pavlov experiment on classical conditioning. Do you remember that test wherein, Pavlov tested on a dog by giving him food, thereby triggering salivation from it..When it comes to marketing this topic can have dual effect on potential customers. Because they may think that better opt to wait and save money to be able to buy new properties rather than buying in credit. Most people are already heavily debt-laden these days. Many are still losing jobs up to now. World economy hasn't completely recovered yet from the recession. Nevertheless, some might find luck in it. I remember the rag-to0riches story of one of the world's richest man on earth. He was featured on Discovery channel. I think he was a Pakistani, who migrated to Britain. He was from a family of carpenters. They renovated houses and during the Great Depression they started buying houses. That was how he became wealthy. Those who risks can have it all (fame, money, success) or have none at all. Those who choose no to take the risk they stay mediocre all their lives.

  31. Actually Delilah, this is one of my shorter posts. I don't stick the rules of keeping posts short and publishing frequently.

    Your points are well taken. I do agree with you that exceptional people are often impatient risk-takers. Bill Gates dropped out of college. He found it boring. But, exceptional people are a whole different story.

    Thank you for stopping by and commenting.

  32. Thank you for showing me the way to this post Bruce. This is in fact exactly the kind of teaching that I believe would be helpful in the public school system. It is nice to see some research proving my theories. Very well written, and for myself definitely hits home. I spent way too much on credit cards and then when emergency hit had to dig myself a hole that I cannot get out of. If I had simply left them for emergencies only I would probably be in a drastically better situation. Instant gratification is a huge problem with our society in so many ways. Which is why I believe we must combat it with basic education in areas we have previously avoided. Would love to do a link share with your blog :)

  33. Impact, Thank you for visiting and for commenting. I found you recent post quite interesting, and I advise anyone who is reading this and is interested in the subject of education to check out your blog.

  34. That was very interesting. I had never hear even the slightest mumble about this marshmallow test! It is quite a fascinating thing. Honestly it got me thinking, and asking my self if I am one of those children who could wait the whole 15 minutes for a second marshmallow. My conclusion; I sure hope so!

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  35. I remember reading about those studies and just thinking it was mean. Now that I'm grown up (?) I really appreciate that you put it in such a way as to make me stop and think. To be truthful, I stopped and thought AFTER I got the bag of marshmallows out of the cupboard. I don't even want to know what that says about me, other than that I always have marshmallows nearby. They just make the landing of a fall so much softer.

  36. That was a great example. You certainly got my attention. I will be back!

  37. eek at self control tests! I would fail atm.

    liked the post,hope to learn from it :)

  38. 'Don't eat the marshmallow'..!
    I learnt the very important lesson of my life. Thanks buddy.. You've written it perfectly, excellent. I love it.

  39. Hi, Bruce, thanks for commenting about the size of my dogs today. I also have a German shepherd dog. Anyway, you comment made me laugh, just what I needed today. Thanks. And I found the above very interesting also. I have no idea how my four-year old self would react to a test like this.

  40. I stumbled across your blog and read about the marhmellow experiment. Extremely interesting. Thought you might enjoy this


  41. Wonderful post. I've been reading a bunch of your posts; everything you write is fantastic and thoughtful.

    I've seen the videos of them marshmellow tests, I don't know what I'd do. I mean, try holding off of the popcorn until the trailers end, it's impossible.

    You touch upon an important thing in life --- the choice between instant gratification, and focusing on long term goals. How anyone ever does anything for the long term good is quite a miracle.

    It's good to know there are people like you who care enough to write about it.

  42. Brilliant piece, Bruce. I constantly seek a simplier life, much like my grandparents lived. Their generation understood living so much better than mine seems to. Hopefully, we are learning.

  43. Yet another interesting piece.
    Although the transition between marshmallows and real estate confused me at first-- but I get it, it just wasn't the smoothest transition. However I enjoyed it, and imagined myself gobbling that sucker whilst ringing the bell (what can I say, I have a greedy gut)which, consequently, explains my personality. Heh.


So, what do YOU think?