The Marshmallow Test: Delayed Gratification in Children

Young boy roasting marshmallows with his mother
Petri Oeschger / Getty Images

The marshmallow test, which was created by psychologist Walter Mischel, is one of the most famous psychological experiments ever conducted. The test lets young children decide between an immediate reward, or, if they delay gratification, a larger reward. Studies by Mischel and colleagues found that children’s ability to delay gratification when they were young was correlated with positive future outcomes. More recent research has shed further light on these findings and provided a more nuanced understanding of the future benefits of self-control in childhood.

Key Takeaways: The Marshmallow Test

  • The marshmallow test was created by Walter Mischel. He and his colleagues used it to test young children’s ability to delay gratification.
  • In the test, a child is presented with the opportunity to receive an immediate reward or to wait to receive a better reward.
  • A relationship was found between children’s ability to delay gratification during the marshmallow test and their academic achievement as adolescents.
  • More recent research has added nuance to these findings showing that environmental factors, such as the reliability of the environment, play a role in whether or not children delay gratification.
  • Contrary to expectations, children’s ability to delay gratification during the marshmallow test has increased over time.

The Original Marshmallow Test

The original version of the marshmallow test used in studies by Mischel and colleagues consisted of a simple scenario. A child was brought into a room and presented with a reward, usually a marshmallow or some other desirable treat. The child was told that the researcher had to leave the room but if they could wait until the researcher returned, the child would get two marshmallows instead of just the one they were presented with. If they couldn’t wait, they wouldn’t get the more desirable reward. The researcher would then leave the room for a specific amount of time (typically 15 minutes but sometimes as long as 20 minutes) or until the child could no longer resist eating the single marshmallow in front of them.

Over six years in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mischel and colleagues repeated the marshmallow test with hundreds of children who attended the preschool on the Stanford University campus. The children were between 3 and 5 years old when they participated in the experiments. Variations on the marshmallow test used by the researchers included different ways to help the children delay gratification, such as obscuring the treat in front of the child or giving the child instructions to think about something else in order to get their mind off the treat they were waiting for.

Years later, Mischel and colleagues followed up with some of their original marshmallow test participants. They discovered something surprising. Those individuals who were able to delay gratification during the marshmallow test as young children rated significantly higher on cognitive ability and the ability to cope with stress and frustration in adolescence. They also earned higher SAT scores.

These results led many to conclude that the ability to pass the marshmallow test and delay gratification was the key to a successful future. However, Mischel and his colleagues were always more cautious about their findings. They suggested that the link between delayed gratification in the marshmallow test and future academic success might weaken if a larger number of participants were studied. They also observed that factors like the child’s home environment could be more influential on future achievement than their research could show.

Recent Findings

The relationship Mischel and colleagues found between delayed gratification in childhood and future academic achievement garnered a great deal of attention. As a result, the marshmallow test became one of the most well-known psychological experiments in history. Yet, recent studies have used the basic paradigm of the marshmallow test to determine how Mischel’s findings hold up in different circumstances.

Delayed Gratification and Environmental Reliability

In 2013, Celeste Kidd, Holly Palmeri, and Richard Aslin published a study that added a new wrinkle to the idea that delayed gratification was the result of a child’s level of self-control. In the study, each child was primed to believe the environment was either reliable or unreliable. In both conditions, before doing the marshmallow test, the child participant was given an art project to do. In the unreliable condition, the child was provided with a set of used crayons and told that if they waited, the researcher would get them a bigger, newer set. The researcher would leave and return empty-handed after two and a half minutes. The researcher would then repeat this sequence of events with a set of stickers. The children in the reliable condition experienced the same set up, but in this case the researcher came back with the promised art supplies.

The children were then given the marshmallow test. Researchers found that those in the unreliable condition waited only about three minutes on average to eat the marshmallow, while those in the reliable condition managed to wait for an average of 12 minutes—substantially longer. The findings suggest that children’s ability to delay gratification isn’t solely the result of self-control. It’s also a rational response to what they know about the stability of their environment.

Thus, the results show that nature and nurture play a role in the marshmallow test. A child’s capacity for self-control combined with their knowledge of their environment leads to their decision about whether or not to delay gratification.

Marshmallow Test Replication Study

In 2018, another group of researchers, Tyler Watts, Greg Duncan, and Haonan Quan, performed a conceptual replication of the marshmallow test. The study wasn’t a direct replication because it didn’t recreate Mischel and his colleagues exact methods. The researchers still evaluated the relationship between delayed gratification in childhood and future success, but their approach was different. Watts and his colleagues utilized longitudinal data from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, a diverse sample of over 900 children.

In particular, the researchers focused their analysis on children whose mothers hadn’t completed college when they were born—a subsample of the data that better represented the racial and economic composition of children in America (although Hispanics were still underrepresented). Each additional minute a child delayed gratification predicted small gains in academic achievement in adolescence, but the increases were much smaller than those reported in Mischel’s studies. Plus, when factors like family background, early cognitive ability, and home environment were controlled for, the association virtually disappeared.

The results of the replication study have led many outlets reporting the news to claim that Mischel’s conclusions had been debunked. However, things aren’t quite so black and white. The new study demonstrated what psychologists already knew: that factors like affluence and poverty will impact one’s ability to delay gratification. The researchers themselves were measured in their interpretation of the results. Lead researcher Watts cautioned, “…these new findings should not be interpreted to suggest that gratification delay is completely unimportant, but rather that focusing only on teaching young children to delay gratification is unlikely to make much of a difference.” Instead, Watts suggested that interventions that focus on the broad cognitive and behavioral capabilities that help a child develop the ability to delay gratification would be more useful in the long term than interventions that only help a child learn to delay gratification.

Cohort Effects in Delayed Gratification

With mobile phones, streaming video, and on-demand everything today, it's a common belief that children's ability to delay gratification is deteriorating. In order to investigate this hypothesis, a group of researchers, including Mischel, conducted an analysis comparing American children who took the marshmallow test in the 1960s, 1980s, or 2000s. The children all came from similar socioeconomic backgrounds and were all 3 to 5 years old when they took the test.

Contrary to popular expectations, children’s ability to delay gratification increased in each birth cohort. The children who took the test in the 2000s delayed gratification for an average of 2 minutes longer than the children who took the test in the 1960s and 1 minute longer than the children who took the test in the 1980s.

The researchers suggested that the results can be explained by increases in IQ scores over the past several decades, which is linked to changes in technology, the increase in globalization, and changes in the economy. They also noted that the use of digital technology has been associated with an increased ability to think abstractly, which could lead to better executive function skills, such as the self-control associated with delayed gratification. Increased preschool attendance could also help account for the results.

Nonetheless, the researchers cautioned that their study wasn’t conclusive. Future research with more diverse participants is needed to see if the findings hold up with different populations as well as what might be driving the results.

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