The Marshmallow Test

You’re four years old. You’re given a marshmallow and told you can eat it now, but if you wait fifteen minutes, you’ll get a second one. Some kids use various stratagems to resist temptation and win the reward, such as singing to themselves, playing foot games, or even hiding their eyes. Others just can’t wait, and gobble up the marshmallow straight away.

This experiment was started in the 1960s by psychologist Walter Mischel. The kids were tracked through high school graduation. And the two groups differed dramatically. Those who were able to wait, to gain a double treat, were far more on track for success in life.

This was a test of impulsiveness versus restraint, desire versus self-control, and the concept of delayed gratification. Those passing the test grew to be more socially competent, personally effective, self-motivated, and able to cope with life’s ups and downs; more confident, trustworthy and dependable; and far better academic performers. But kids who, at four, couldn’t resist temptation were worse off in all these aspects – on track toward lives of frustration, failure, and social dysfunction.

In fact, the marshmallow test turns out to be a better predictor for such basic life success than any other measure (such as IQ).

Another simple test can be done even earlier, used by the eminent pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton. He shows an eight-month old baby two blocks and how they should be put together. Some do it confidently and bright-eyed, expecting praise. Others with a wan, defeatist attitiude. Even so early, the differing personality styles say volumes about how children have already been socialized – and, like the marshmallow test, strongly predict their future life trajectories.

This is discussed in Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence. He was much influenced by what he saw as a host of worsening social pathologies, including crime and violence – which actually were just then on the cusp of a dramatic turnaround. Nevertheless, it’s still a highly important book. That marshmallow test keeps coming up everywhere I turn.

Goleman’s book is grounded upon Howard Gardner’s model of “multiple intelligences.” Gardner’s insight was that standard measures of intelligence (or “cognitive ability”) such as IQ tests actually gauge only a narrow part of the spectrum of relevant capabilities: managing emotions, self-motivation, empathy, interpersonal effectiveness, handling conflicts and setbacks, etc. It’s plausibly estimated that conventional IQ contributes only around 20% to success in life, the rest hinging on these other capabilities. Thus it’s quite common for high IQ people to mess up their lives, while “dummies” thrive. (Ronald Reagan was not the brightest bulb intellectually, but had other competences that enabled him to succeed and achieve greatly.)

These other capabilities Goleman calls “emotional intelligence,” and the marshmallow test is an excellent indicator for them. Passing that test unpacks into a whole array of positive personality characteristics. The implications are huge.

Now, genetics does play some role in personality development; but it’s actually very limited. So complex is the brain that genes can only prescribe a general guide for wiring up all its interconnections, and the details result from environmental influences. That mainly means parents and their parenting styles. Brazelton believes that the personality dichotomy revealed by his block test is largely down to how parents have interacted with their babies.

I have repeatedly stressed education’s importance for our future prosperity. Conventional subjects like reading, math, science, and social studies are certainly important here. But Goleman’s book shows us that “emotional intelligence” is more important. Traditional academic proficiency will avail a person little if his life is a mess from emotional incompetence. He may not be employable if he can’t work with people. And the book further makes clear that without emotional intelligence, teaching the “3 R’s” is bound to fail anyway. Students with poor emotional intelligence tend to do poorly in school; practically all high school drop-outs probably fail for that reason rather than “dumbness.”

Thus, emphasis on “3 R” education and testing puts the cart before the horse. The most important test for kids is the marshmallow test. Fail that one, and other educational efforts are doomed to futility.

Now, you might say that emotional intelligence should be taught in the home. Sure – ideally. But have you looked at some homes? A single teenaged drop-out mother, living a frazzled chaotic life, is unlikely to inculcate her children with good emotional intelligence. She probably lacks it herself, which is why she is a single teenaged drop-out mother. Thus, even if it’s not in genes, this kind of dysfunction does get passed from one generation to another. And it’s not limited to a particular social class. Upscale parents likewise may be no great shakes at emotional intelligence.

Similar points are made in a more recent book, Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Yes, he too invokes the marshmallow test. Character, Tough posits, is created by encountering and overcoming adversity. The overcoming part is hard for disadavantaged children; but for affluent ones, it’s the encountering part they miss, when parents are so often overprotective. Hence failure to develop important positive character traits is a big society-wide problem.

But it’s not insoluble. People can be educated to be better parents, as in programs like the Harlem Children’s Zone’s “Baby College.” And while as the marshmallow and Brazelton tests show, children from emotionally dysfunctional families are handicapped from the start, the damage can actually be ameliorated in the schools if the problem is understood and the effort is made. Goleman described a number of initiatives showing some success, entailing either special classes teaching kids emotional competence per se, or else systematically incorporating such lessons into the teaching of more conventional subjects, especially reading.

One thing neuroscience has certainly revealed is the human mind’s plasticity. Habits of thought and behavior and even emotive response can be modified through learning. Students getting these lessons can overcome the handicaps revealed by the marshmallow and Brazelton tests, and go on to do better in school and cope better with life’s challenges. And, of course, they will also go on to be more emotionally intelligent parents to their own future children, helping to break the cycle of dysfunction handed down from generation to generation.

All this does require serious rethinking of our whole approach to education, and meets much resistance from teachers, many of whom may not themselves be paragons of emotional competence, and who anyway say they are already overburdened with all the other curriculum elements. However, again – for too many kids, trying to teach them all that other stuff is a waste of time if they aren’t first taught emotional intelligence.

And, once more, this is crucial for being a successful nation full of successful people. We want to be a nation of people who can pass the marshmallow test. We want to be a nation that gets that second marshmallow.

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12 Responses to “The Marshmallow Test”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    And that second marshmallow (and, third and fourth) might be sustainable personal, national and worldwide lifestyles.

    [FSR comment: I do not advocate unlimited marshmallow consumption.]

  2. Lee Says:

    As an experienced foster parent of children who were raised poor, I have to argue that you have reversed the cause and effect of the marshmallow test!

    Children who were raised poor know that if they try to conserve any resource, such as a marshmallow, chances are too high that it will be lost — to an emergency that requires it, to a begging friend, or to a thief. Frequently, the *rational* thing to do is to consume the resource immediately. That is, it is the success in life that permits one to delay gratification, much more than the other way around.

    In too many contexts for these children, delaying gratification is irrational, and you will be doing them a disservice if you try to teach them otherwise, unless you team this approach with an increase in their available resources.

    [FSR comment: There may be some arguable merit in your point that partially explains why some children exhibit the psychology in question. Undoubtedly there are a lot of factors in an impoverished environment that affect psychological development. I frankly do not know whether in the original Marshmallow work there was any effort to control for the economic background of subjects; Goleman said nothing to such effect. But his book does pretty convincingly provide evidence that, regardless of economic background, affirmatively teaching kids the kinds of emotional intelligence tools that enable people to pass the marshmallow test can be effective in changing their behavior in ways that work better for them and enable them to achieve more. Sure, it would be nice if "an increase in their available resources" were also feasible -- as I have argued elsewhere in this blog, money can buy some happiness. But see also my post, "Cash is not the Answer." BUT in any case I certainly don't agree with your preposterous assertion that teaching kids emotional maturity is a "disservice" (!) if you don't also give them "resources"!!]

  3. Lee Says:

    It was not my intention to trash all of emotional intelligence theory, about which I know almost nothing, but rather to comment only on the marshmallow test.

    “I ask forgiveness for the things I’ve done you blame me for.” (Elphaba, Wicked).

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  11. Charles Murray, “Real Education,” and Inequality | The Rational Optimist Says:

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