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Patrick Takahashi

Patrick Takahashi

Posted: February 22, 2011 12:43 PM

The Stanford Marshmallow Test


I've spent my entire life on education, and several years ago while writing a chapter on education for my SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Humanity, I stumbled across Walter Mischel's "Stanford Marshmallow Test" of 4-year-old children. You can read what happened by clicking on that link, but to quickly summarize:

1. Four-year-old children were placed in a test room having a chair, table and plate holding one marshmallow. The child is told by the tester that he would need to leave the room and will be gone for a few minutes, but if that marshmallow was still on that plate when he returned, the reward would be a second marshmallow.

2. Fourteen or so years later just as they were about to graduate from high school, Mischel tracked down many of these students to see if there was any difference between one marshmallow and two marshmallow children.

3. The results were striking:

a. The one marshmallow child averaged 1052 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, but, more so, was generally indecisive, impulsive, provoked arguments, a poor student and gave up easily.

b. The two marshmallow child averaged 1262 on the SAT and was assertive, confident, dependable, academically competent and followed through on plans.

By the way, 30 percent of them waited for two marshmallows. You might say, this is crazy, how can a 4-year-old child who quickly eats the marshmallow become the criminal in society when the one who waits and gets two becomes a progressive citizen? Well, while there are contradictory points of view, it turns out there is some validity to this test.

In a way, this study epitomized the crusade I have been advocating: that perhaps we are overemphasizing Reading/Riting/Rithmetic, when we should be spending more time on the other R's that truly can determine your character: Rigor/Respect/Relevance/Relationship. Mind you, I am a PhD biochemical engineer. People tend to agree with me in discussions, but I've gotten nowhere with my 7 R's of education.

Part of the problem is that we, apparently, can only afford to teach the 3 basic R's, and are doing a bum job at it, for our students do so embarrassingly poorly in standardized tests compared to most developed countries of the world, and many developing ones. Mind you, further, our economy is so stressed that the larger problem now is just finding money to keep schools open, and that, perhaps as justified rationalization, teachers feel that rigor, respect, relevance and relationship are best taught at home.

Much of the above is relatively well known by most educators, but amazingly enough, very little follow-up has occurred regarding the marshmallow test. The Huffington Post annually has an article or two:

1. 7November2010 How A Pair Of Cookies Can Help Predict Your Child's SAT Scores (VIDEO)

2. 6November2009 Can Candy Turn You Into a Criminal or a CEO?

3. 24June2009 Getting Rich and the Marshmallow

4. 21May2009 The Long Term Benefits Of Self Discipline

HuffPost also presents an argument about taking the marshmallow test too seriously:

2February2010 Don't Seal Your Child's Fate Based on a Kindergarten Test!

There are also papers such as:

November2008 Why Self-Discipline is Overrated

In all areas of study, as we have seen in global warming and the budget, there are many sides to those issues. You can find a contrarian on anything these days, but the dominating mindset is that there is something to Mischel's experiment.

Daniel Goleman, in his Emotional Intelligence, touches on the field for the popular reading audience, and papers like "To Do or Not to Do: The Neural Signature of Self-Control," are now and then covered in scientific publications like the Journal of Neuroscience. So why am I repeating the story of the marshmallow children?

I feel compelled to comment for the simple reason that this study began in the late '60s, made its convincing point in the '80s, but only every so often again comes of interest, as when The New Yorker in 2009 published "Don't," by Jonah Lehrer, sparking those HuffPos above. Here we are, three decades after it became generally known that instant-gratification is bad and simple self-control can make you a much more successful human being, and we are not as a society doing much about it.

All this hand-waving would be a waste of time if, yes, we acknowledge all this, but can't do anything about it because children who are this way will act the same when they become adults. But this is not so! Reams of studies have shown that anyone, even adults, can be taught to be more responsible and creative, plus learn self-restraint. Goleman, in particular has some sensible pathways to offer.

The crux of the matter is that in the 12 years it takes to teach a child to read, know some math and science, appreciate history and the humanities, and think, there should also be a concerted effort to mold successful and productive citizens. If at the age of 4 (or less) we can begin to provide enlightened education to those severely challenged--the faster you grab it, the more apt you are to lean towards criminality -- one marshmallow individuals who appear to be mostly (there will always be exceptions, of course) doomed to failure or frustration in later life, they will almost surely benefit, and thus so will society.