Reinterpreting the Marshmallow Experiment

July 12, 2021 by Joshua
in Choosing/Decision-Making, Education

Many of you know about the famous Marshmallow Experiment. I wrote an extended series on it and willpower. I think it’s worth revisiting. I’m concluding different results on further reflection.

Here’s a cute video on it:


First, let’s review it. According to Wikipedia:

The Stanford marshmallow experiment was a study on deferred gratification conducted in 1972 by psychologist Walter Mischel of Stanford University. A marshmallow was offered to each child. If the child could resist eating the marshmallow, he was promised two instead of one. The scientists analyzed how long each child resisted the temptation of eating the marshmallow, and whether or not doing so had an effect on their future success. Although the experiment has been repeated many times since, the original study at Stanford has been considered “one of the most successful behavioural experiments”.

That study found

  • The marshmallow experiment suggests the most important quality for determining success isn’t intelligence or talent but the ability to delay gratification. Children who were able to put up with temporary discomfort in exchange for a future reward are now more successful in almost every measurable way. (source)
  • Those who waited for a second marshmallow turned out to be more socially competent, self-assertive and academically successful. (source)
  • The boys and girls who waited even scored an average of 210 points more in their school exams [SATs] than those who didn’t. (source)

The New Yorker reported a researcher who conducted a similar experiment found

that the ability to delay gratification—eighth graders were given a choice between a dollar right away or two dollars the following week—was a far better predictor of academic performance than I.Q. She said that her study shows that “intelligence is really important, but it’s still not as important as self-control.

This study revealed something that predicted success in almost every measurable way, social competency, self-assertiveness, and academic success?

People highly value the Marshmallow Experiment. Here is the famous theoretical physicist Michio Kaku:


New Interpretations

Marshmallows have only existed a few generations. They are doof, not food, made largely of sugar and only highly refined ingredients. Nothing like them existed for most of human existence. They are designed to produce craving beyond anything in our ancestors’ environments. I suspect that few of our ancestors for hundreds of thousands of years had to deal with things that induced so much craving.

Self-control is valuable, but the Marshmallow Experiment seems to require of it than our ancestors ever needed.

Not did measures of success in life resemble bubble-form tests and sitting in rows listening to an authoritarian figure lecturing facts for recall before a few generations ago.

Testing a child’s resistance to craving beyond what our emotional system was designed for and measuring the results’ correlation against activities equally irrelevant to our ancestral past tell us more about our society, I believe, than about the individual.

In Short

I’m starting to conclude that it is more a statement about what our society has normalized—unhealthy things and authoritarian, fact-and-analysis-based education designed to teach us to learn facts and analyze them. It teaches us less how to socialize, play, forage, resolve conflict, and here-and-now things.

I’m swayed by reading about other cultures, especially in books by James Suzman and J. B. MacKinnon, both podcast guests, that show people in other cultures outperforming us in measures of health, longevity, stability, and prosperity. We treat here-and-now things as hedonistic, but there are plenty of in-the-moment activities that aren’t hedonistic and are healthy, like sports and picking berries. Our ancestors probably lived much more in the moment. For them doing well on the Marshmallow Experiment might not have predicted success as much.

In that light, tests like SAT seem out of alignment for a happy life and the Marshmallow Test distracts from doing useful things.

Our Ancestral Environment

Suzman and MacKinnon’s books tell me our ancestors lived in worlds of abundant resources. Self-control regarding food would have been irrelevant. If someone wanted berries or whatever food, there was no reason not to eat it in whatever quantity they wanted. There was always more and none of it induced craving anyway.

It looks like self-control wasn’t that useful then. It looks like we’ve created a world where something we weren’t built for has become important. Maybe we’ve filled our world with craving and challenges that make our lives worse. Maybe we didn’t create a better world. At least it seems worth questioning.

An Indictment

I see the Marshmallow Test as misguided and irrelevant to what would make most of our ancestors successful and happy. It accepts mainstream testing, consumer lifestyle as normal. Maybe our world is better in some ways, but not all. America is plenty addicted, mostly to sugar and fat, but also heroin, alcohol, tobacco, and other things. We’re trashing the planet. Might it be that the Marshmallow Test promotes looking the wrong place for a healthy, happy life? Might it signal that we’ve distorted society away from what our ancestors thrived in?

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