The Marshmallow Experiment Does Not Revolve Around Willpower

The Marshmallow Experiment Does Not Revolve Around Willpower

Are you familiar with a trial in which a kid were offered a choice between taking one candy now or being rewarded with an extra one if he/she could resist the temptation for fifteen minutes? Most of us were exposed to the video of the experiment, which aimed to demonstrate that “good things come to those who wait—and work, and sacrifice, and maybe even suffer.”

This study was originally conducted in 1972 by psychologists Walter Mischel and his team, and the treat used was actually a marshmallow. It became well-known as the “Stanford marshmallow experiment.” Children were presented with a marshmallow and given the option to either eat it immediately or wait for the researcher to return to the room after fifteen minutes. If the child could wait and the marshmallow was still there when the researcher came back, they would be rewarded with an extra marshmallow. Some children talked to themselves or covered their eyes in an effort to resist, while many others popped the marshmallow into their mouths as soon as the researchers left the room.

Mischel and his team followed up with the children years later and published the results in a 1990 study. They concluded that the children who displayed more patience were more likely to be successful, healthier, happier, and had higher standardized test scores.

As the study has spanned decades, the children who participated in it have grown up, allowing for follow-up studies to validate the outcomes. Scientists have discovered that this experiment extends beyond mere willpower; in fact, it is not solely about willpower at all. Even some scientists and journalists criticize the original study for encountering a “replication crisis,” as Stuart Richie explained in his book Science Fiction that means the experiment failed to be replicated and had bizarre results, along with revelations of misrepresentation and fraud that spooked psychologists.

Prosperous kids are good at delaying gratification

Researchers from NYU and UC Irvine were skeptical of the original experiment’s results, to the extent that they conducted their own study with ten times more children recruited from much more diverse backgrounds in terms of ethnicity and family background (you can read more about the study here: link). Their findings revealed that children’s patience to wait for the second marshmallow is actually influenced by their social and economic background, and in the long run, it is this background that drives their long-term success.

The circumstances in which children find themselves play a critical role in shaping their lives. Kids with unfortunate economic backgrounds struggle to resist the temptation of a marshmallow, as they live a daily life with fewer guarantees. They might have access to some food in the kitchen now, but not necessarily tonight, making waiting for a reward uncertain. They experience a life of “eat while you can” due to their circumstances. Even when their parents promise them food, those promises unfortunately often get broken due to other financial obligations or constraints.

Children from educated families and more affluent backgrounds have a well-stocked fridge, allowing them to eat whenever they desire. Even if they fail to obtain the extra marshmallow, they have the confidence that their parents can take them to nearby food courts or treat them to scoops of ice cream.

This conclusion was supported by many other research studies that stated how living in poverty pushes people to make impulsive short-term decisions rather than waiting for long-term rewards. This is basically our primal instinct to survive.

Valuing The Future Leads to Healthier Outcomes

The children in the experiment were essentially being asked to decide between a small, immediate reward and a larger, future reward. Their choice depended, in part, on the extent to which they implicitly discounted (undervalued) the value of a future reward compared to an immediate one.

A follow-up study from health perspective conducted 30 years after the original experiment found that children who were more successful at resisting the temptation of the marshmallow ended up having lower body weight. For every minute they were able to delay the reward, they had a decrease of 0.2 Body Mass Index (BMI) points as adults. Furthermore, a difference of ten minutes in postpone was associated with approximately 7 kg difference in adult weight.

In The Hungry Brain, the author argues that individuals who highly value their future selves, particularly in terms of health, will also prioritize long-term goals such as leanness and overall well-being. This phenomenon is referred to as delay discounting.

People who fail to appreciate future rewards tend to be at a higher risk of obesity. Moreover, they are also more likely to engage in harmful behaviors such as illegal drug use, alcohol consumption, smoking, gambling, and accumulating credit card debt.

From an evolutionary perspective, we can comprehend why some individuals tend to value the present more than the future. Our ancestors lived in an uncertain environment, making it advantageous for their brains to prioritize immediate needs over future considerations.

However, in the current world, many of us experience more certainty in terms of food resources compared to any other period in human history. Therefore, it would be more sensible to enhance our appreciation for the future. Unfortunately, our non-conscious brain regions responsible for calculating value and driving our motivations have not yet caught up to this shift.

They grow up well, no matter what their decision was

Yuichi Shoda, Mischel’s collaborator, proclaimed that many of the children in the experiment actually turned out just fine. He stated that our personalities undergo unexpected transformations as we are exposed to and influenced by various experiences over time. The same applies to the children involved in these experiments. Shoda’s post-marshmallow-experiment study has sparked discussions on the connection between nature and nurture in shaping one’s personality.

In his book titled Range, David Epstein used Shoda’s statement as one of his argument about creating long-term goals based on our unexpected transformation in personality affected by time, experience, and different contexts. At some point in life, an individual’s nature influences how they respond to certain situations. However, it can appear remarkably different in various contexts, which Todd Rose, director of Harvard’s Mind, Brain, and Education Program, and computational neuroscientist Ogi Ogas refer to as the context principle.

How children decided on the marshmallow case cannot be generalized to how they make other life decisions as they grow up. It is somehow unwise to determine someone’s future based solely on an experiment.

Conclusion

Social and psychology study is a complex field where people can easily remake the experiment and get fooled by overemphasizing the quick and easy judgements to the more complex ones. As reminded by Mischel as the test’s orginator, we have to be careful on judging someone because no simple measure of individual differences was going to be very good at predicting behavior.

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