In Defense of Marshmellows

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Originally posted on April 29, 2014.

Becoming a psychologist makes it hard to name drop. We rarely know celebrities. We read more than we schmooze. We seldom inform national or international politics. But we do drop the names of famous psychological studies. Few studies get more name dropping than Walter Mischel’s delay of gratification studies, the so-called marshmallow studies.  

Some think the marshmallow study recently took a slight beating. Much of the criticism has radiated from the findings of a cool new study. In the study, some children learned not to trust an adult experimenter, whereas others learned to trust the same adult experimenter. Next, they were brought through the classic delay of gratification study procedure. Kids were left alone in a room to stare at a treat with the promise of a larger reward if they resisted eating that treat. The result: Compared to those exposed to a non-trustworthy experimenter, children exposed to a trustworthy experimenter waited longer in order to receive a larger reward.

In a recent New York Times Op-Ed, Michael Bourne argues that these results question the depth of Mischel’s classic delay of gratification findings. Yes, the new findings identify a crucial factor – whether or not you can trust an adult experimenter – that can change a child’s delay of gratification. But these findings do little to negate the meaning of the original findings. If anything, they strengthen them.

Let’s start by focusing on the kids who learned to trust the adult experimenter. About 64 percent of them delayed gratification as long as possible. That’s quite a few, but far from 100 percent. Some kids gave up, some tried a little, and some were stalwarts. It’s normal to find variation in behavior. But you can relate variation in delay of gratification to other factors that also differ between children, such as their school performance, drug history, and brain functioning. These factors affected the kids in the new study similar to the way they’d affected the kids in the original delay of gratification studies.

When kids learn not to trust an adult experimenter, they give up sooner. That finding, while interesting, says nothing about the importance of delay of gratification. It merely shows that kids are smart not to use their limited mental energy to delay gratification when they may not reap the rewards. Their behavior supports the saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

The marshmallow studies never sought to identify the Holy Grail of psychological strength. Delay of gratification is one of many factors that contribute to individual, relationship, and societal well-being. Rather than throwing the marshmallows out with the bath water, we should recognize that this new scientific finding has helped identify the nuances of delay of gratification and therefore may help us learn more about living happier, healthier, and more productive lives.

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About the Author
C. Nathan DeWall is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social Psychology Lab at the University of Kentucky. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from St. Olaf College, a Master’s Degree in Social Science from the University of Chicago, and a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Florida State University. DeWall received the 2011 College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teaching Award, which recognizes excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching. In 2011, the Association for Psychological Science identified DeWall as a “Rising Star” for “making significant contributions to the field of psychological science.”