Are you eating the marshmallow?

Marshmallow TestThere was a famous study done at Stanford University over 30 years ago.  In the study, children were left alone in a room with a marshmallow. They were told that if they didn’t eat it, they would be given another one in fifteen minutes.  What do you think you would have done if you were left in the room at age 5?

If you watch the video (below), the reactions of the kids are pretty entertaining.  Some kids wait while other kids eat the marshmallow.  Meanwhile, some kids played with the marshmallow and licked it, and one kid pulled out the inside to eat and then put the rest of the marshmallow back together.

The study traced these kids for 30 years after the study was done, and here is what they found.  The kids who didn’t eat it were found to significantly more successful than the group who ate the marshmallow.  They had higher SAT scores, got into more famous colleges, and had better marriages.  The results were statistically significant.

One thing the study would like you to take away is that it is useful to delay gratification for 15 minutes.  Something that successful people have to come to grips with early.

Think about it.

Like taking a really hard class in college in order to take better electives and get better majors later.  Learning how to study contract law or Torts inside on a beautiful day because 1L grades in law school are really important.  Taking more interesting yet lowering paying jobs early in your career or becoming an entrepreneur earlier in your career understanding what it will lead to more opportunities 5 to 10 years later.  Or even taking two years out to go to business school even though it’s costing you two years of salary in the short term. Because in the end you’ll be much better off.

The part that interests me here is that people from lower socio-economic backgrounds are at a disadvantage during the test.  In part because their journey tends to have a higher percentage of delays of gratification (or no gratification) than their peers growing up.  This means kids who don’t ever have as much in front of them may be less likely to pass up on something when they finally have it. And kids who have been let down might have the idea that the person will come back and give them the second marshmallow.  Practically speaking maybe they’ve never seen a time when taking less money made sense or when taking two years off to pay to go to school made sense, because they’ve always lived paycheck to paycheck.  Or because their lives have always been unstable or filled with “failure”, they can’t rely on future promises from other people.  This is why many of these folks opt out of higher loan payments for college and couldn’t imagine turning down a job in corporate American to start a business.

From the study, four ideas quickly come to mind:

  1. More often than not, it’s best not to eat the marshmallow.
  2. We have to figure out ways to help those who haven’t had as many marshmallows as kids to still not eat it too quickly.
  3. Sometimes it might be best to let people keep the marshmallow, even if they don’t eat it – and maybe decide later.  This is still delaying gratification.
  4. On the other hand, in some cases it might be best to eat the marshmallow.  What if you don’t want a second one or if you could find a another in under 15 minutes?

What about you?  What’s your marshmallow right now, and are you eating it?  If so, are you sure you should be?


See below for a video of kids who took part in the study.

Monday, December 16th, 2013 Careers, Diversity

2 Comments to Are you eating the marshmallow?

Ricardo Gonzalez
December 17, 2013

Very interesting stuff. One thought that comes to mind is the idea of present value. Yes, if you save money today, you will have more money later but not necessarily be “worth” more. Delayed gratification can lead to more “success” but there’s something to be said for enjoying the now.

Jeremy C Wilson
December 17, 2013

@Ricardo Gonzalez Thanks for commenting!

I definitely understand your concept of present value and I agree that it should definitely be discussed. On the other hand, I also wonder how much that would apply to a five year old. Do you think a five year old could adequately understand the trade-off of enjoying the now versus having success? Or was this study testing things that were built in and inherently more biological and psychological? To that end, I wonder how the testing would change if you brought in a different age group.

Just a thought.

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Jeremy C Wilson is a JD-MBA alumni using his site to share information on education, the social enterprise revolution, entrepreneurship, and doing things differently. Feel free to send along questions or comments as you read.


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