The Marshmallow Test

In the 1960s, Prof Walter Mischel and his research team at the Stanford University launched a series of delayed-gratification experiments with young children. This research method  later came to be known as “the marshmallow test.”

In this test, the researcher explained that the child could have either one or two of the highly attractive treats the child had chosen. The treats could include  marshmallows, cookies, pretzels etc. The researcher would leave two such treats in a room where the child was made to sit and then leave the room.

The game was: at any time the child could ring a bell, and the researcher would come back immediately and the child could have one treat. If the child waited for the researcher to come back by himself or herself then the child could have both of the treats!” The wait might be as long as 15 or 20 minutes or could even be a bit more. Several children between age 4 to 6 were invited to play this game.

Longitudinal or follow up studies of the tested children suggested that something profound was going on. By the time they were adolescents, the kids who had been able to hold out longer (let us call them as type-1) for the bigger reward in some conditions were likelier to have higher SAT scores, function “better” socially, and  manage temptation and stress better. On into their adulthood, they were less likely to show extreme aggression, less likely to over-react if they became anxious about social rejection, and less likely to become obese.

For the kids who did not hold out well and took the quick reward of one treat (type-2), Mischel said the findings suggested that “the inability to delay gratification could  have quite serious potential negative effects in their life.”

Mischel did caution that the longitudinal results was only correlations that described group findings and did not in any way allow accurate predictions for individual children. But certainly,  marshmallows test served as an indicator to speculate future accomplishments and behaviour of “type-1” and “type-2” groups of children. Probably,  I would say that type-1 children could have high IQ as well as Emotional Quotient (EQ).

I narrated Prof Walter’s Mischel’s experiment and findings to my Professor friend asking whether he would reconsider Prof Walter’s interpretation.

Professor lit his cigar and walked to window and looked outside. There were several people shopping on the streets and shops essentials like vegetables , fruit and meat, grocery etc.  The COVID-19 pandemic was making them shop in large quantities, much more than their daily needs with the fear that if a lockdown is declared then these goods wont be available. Besides the shops were  open only for a limited time and the stocks were presumably limited. The fear and  uncertainty was making people buy more goods than needed as the idea was to build a good stock for security. I am sure that you would agree that, this behaviour was not because of the greed but “need”.

Professor said that the children who would watch such behaviour of their parents will fall into type-2 category. If these children played  the marshmallows game, then they would immediately ring the bell and grab what is possible or available rather than wait for the researcher to come back. They may perhaps be in no mood for a delayed gratification. If Prof Walter was to conduct Marshmallows game in these COVID-19 times then the follow up in the future of these children could give different results and more leaning towards overconsumption.

I thought Professor was right. Constrained lifestyles during the pandemic could change the outlook towards life of this generation.

I kept shut and was lost in my thoughts.

“Remember Dr Modak, constrained lifestyles are not sustainable lifestyles” Professor continued watching me sitting quiet.

Now let me give you another point of view regarding type-2 children that is independent to the COVID-19 times.

To me delayed gratification is a sign of greed. Perhaps, two treats are not really needed for the child (in fact bad for his/her health) and just one treat would be sufficient. If the child had lean living and sustainability concepts in the “DNA” then, the child would have simply been satisfied with just one treat and fall in type-2 category by ringing the bell. Don’t you think that the children of type-1 category show more of greed but with “strategic” patience ? These type of children may perhaps be successful in the material world as Prof Walter’s Mischel found, but this behaviour may not in the interest of the sustainability of this planet. Would you agree?

I realized that Professor was making a radically different interpretation of the marshmallow test.

“So Professor, are we looking for type-1 or type-2 children? I am now confused” I couldn’t hesitate asking this question

Professor extinguished his cigar indicating that the conversation was over.

I returned home realizing that this was a good question to ponder over the new year. I decided to repeat Prof Walter’s Mischel’s experiment to reflect the present times. but friends, you will need to wait for 25 years to know my findings. And I am sure you don’t have that kind of  patience!!

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  1. … the aspirant must avoid the extremes of self-indulgence and self-torture. We are familiar with the warning of the Gita that he who fasts and he who eats too much, he who sleeps too much and he who keeps vigil too long, he who works too much and he who does no work, none of these can be Yogin. The Gita’s injunction is to lead a balanced life of moderation.

    (Page 298-299, Pathway to GOD in Kannada Literature – R D Ranade)

  2. Human behavior is indeed a complex phenomenon to model. Forget about causal models, not even casual models come close to predicting it. I believe we are predisposed to see patterns and identify empirical relationships and draw some sort of conclusions but then something changes and we begin to see a different pattern…

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