Eating Your Marshmallow

In the 1960s, psychologist Walter Mischel, at Stanford University, conducted the famous Marshmallow Experiment on a group of four-year-olds. If you are not familiar with this experiment, it was designed to test impulse control, with follow-up years later to determine the correlation between impulse control and IQ among other things.

The kids were put in a room, one at a time. They were sat at a table. On the table was a plate with one marshmallow. The experimenter told them he had to leave and that while he was away, they could have the marshmallow if they really wanted it. But, if they waited for the experimenter to return, they could have two marshmallows. One third of the children grabbed the marshmallow within seconds of the experimenter leaving.  One third waited a while, but ate the marshmallow before the experimenter returned. One third waited up to twenty minutes, without eating the marshmallow, until the experimenter returned.

Years later, it was discovered that the children with the best impulse control turned out to be the most successful in life – they were better educated, had better jobs, better relationships and were healthier and happier all around.

We have to shake our heads in disbelief at those four-year-olds who couldn’t wait even a couple of minutes to eat that marshmallow, knowing there would be a reward to delaying their gratification. Don’t we?

How is your impulse control?

Buddha compared the human mind to a wild animal that needed taming. Reason over passion.

 We do a lot of things every day that are not in our best interests; that are harmful to us; that we know are harmful to us. Why? Because we are like those four-year-olds with the marshmallow – we just can’t help ourselves.

At the extreme, people who lack impulse control become addicts and/or criminals.

For most of us we just spend too much money. We buy stuff we really don’t need. We eat things we know will cause us to become overweight and lead to health issues and/or make us feel poorly. We watch too much TV. We smoke. We drink too much. We engage in relationships that harm us. We don’t finish projects. We don’t get out and exercise….. The list is endless.

The standard come-back answer for us is usually, “Ya, well I want to enjoy my life – not be a slave to discipline and self-deprivation.”

What if there was a way to regulate your impulse control? Medication combined with psychotherapy often helps those with severe Impulse Control Disorder. But what about helping the average person gain a little more control over their impulsive (wild animal) selves?

Foods high in glutamic acid/glutamate are supposed to help: almonds, walnuts, beef liver, broccoli, spinach, halibut, oranges, citrus fruits, bananas, whole wheat, whole grains, rice bran, brown rice, oats, whole grain, lentils.

Of course you would have to have the self-discipline to include more of these foods in your diet in the first place.

Interestingly, glutamic acid tablets are also known as “smart pills”. Back in the 1940s, experiments were conducted on children with very low IQs (40s and 50s)  that claimed high doses of glutamic acid increased these children’s IQs.

So, how is your impulse control? Do you ever buy something, say something, do something, eat something and/or procrastinate over something that you later kick yourself for? Does this happen only once in a while? Sometimes? Often? All the time?

What would life be like if you always had complete control over your desire for that marshmallow?

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36 responses to “Eating Your Marshmallow

  1. My current brain doesn’t even like marshmallows, but I have no idea what my 4 year old brain would have done. And yeah, I pretty much do what I want all the time, but never to the extreme where it has caused problems. I’m too cheap to overspend or make impulse purchases, am not an overeater – I don’t even like sweets. I’m too picky to have bad relationships. I’m a big believer in self-control. I know people that say about someone, “He’s got to be bipolar!” and I ask, “Does he act like that at work?” No? Exactly. Because he chooses not to. That means this “bipolar” behavior is his choice to lose control. People are weird.

  2. Loved those marshmallow experiments. the kids are so cute and in the black and white filmed one my favorite was the girl who ate the middle out and then left it on the plate to look untouched and have her marshmallow and the reward. what was the remark? she’d go into marketing was it?

  3. i just read about these experiments in my parenting magazine where they were talking about “spirited children.” i don’t even want to think about how the jellybean would do on this. he’s end up on the “most likely to become an addict” list. self control isn’t his strong suit. then again, he’s only 3.

    now, i would be the kid to wait the 20 minutes. i have a ridiculous amount o f self control, to the point that i often deprive myself of anything nice or fun. something i need to work on.

  4. Generally, I’ve got pretty good self-control. I was one of those little kids who could see the big picture and could plan ahead to achieve the end result I wanted. But I don’t know – marshmallows are awfully yummy, I might just scarf ’em down right now, without thinking much about it …

  5. Lebowski – You should be German. Maybe you could convert?

    Brett – I think this is the shortest Brett comment in the history of blogging.

    Geewits – Ever notice how a lot of things end with “people are weird’?? I figure you have to have some pretty good discipline with all the huge projects you undertake — an finish!

    Pearl – Ya, there were a bunch of different groups who recreated this experiment. I don’t think there’s actually a video of the original group. It’s not on the internet anyway. The kids were all pretty creative with how they did or did not eat those damned marshmallows.

    Smothermother – Oh, that’s a little sad. I suppose if there’s a good reason to deprive yourself of nice or fun???

    Pinklea – I don’t think I even knew what a marshmallow was at 4. And I was never all that fond of sweets, so even if I had known what a marshmallow was, I probably would have had no problem resisting it and would have declined the 2 marshmallows at the end of the experiment. I wonder if that would have completely skewed the results of the test? And would it have meant that I would be extraordinarily successful as an adult or just that I don’t have a sweet tooth? So many variables…

  6. I remember reading about another set of experiments where the kids were offered one cookie right away, or two if they waited. All the kids except one opted to double their cookies. The black sheep took the first one right away, saying that she was hungry at the moment but didn’t think she would be later.

    I’d vote that kid as least likely to develop an eating disorder.

    We all need a certain level of self-control but sometimes we are too quick to impose our values on other people, or let their values be imposed upon us. We then berate each other and ourselves for not living up to these meaningless “standards.” Who says that two cookies, or two marshmallows, are necessarily better if you’re hungry now and don’t think you will be later? Is disciplining yourself to work extra hours and save money a good thing if it means you spend your life doing things you don’t care about?

    This is a sensitive subject for me since my brother, who has kids, is always sniping at me for “wasting” my money on travel, eating out, etc. (even though he doesn’t actually know that much about my spending habits). I figure that since I hold a good job, own my own place, and have savings for a rainy day I can spend the rest the way I want. I don’t need to leave behind a big estate. He says I live a totally selfish, undisciplined life. I say he’s an uptight, unfulfilled jerk who wants to make everyone else as miserable as he is.

  7. I did this on the Dude after seeing the video a few weeks ago. Sat him in the dining room with 5 mini marshmallows. He played with them, even squished one into “a dumbell” but after 15 minutes, he hadn’t eaten any. What does that tell me? When it comes to food, he gets the math 😉

  8. one of my kids would not eat the marshmallow and one would eat it before the person even left the room, and *that* kid most definitely has almost every symptom of the impulse control disorder.

    makes me sad it does but based on my experience, it can change if a person wants it to. even during my drunken/drug days i kept a job and an apartment (which i would hide behind and use as an excuse for not having a real problem). i’ve always been entirely too conscientious.

  9. Brett – Ha!

    LesterBee – Well now. Those are excellent points. I don’t think anyone could fault you for the way you live your life. Impulse only becomes a problem if you, for example, had no savings, kept getting behind in your bills, couldn’t bring yourself to get out of bed some mornings and kept losing your jobs and had to borrow money frequently and still spent whatever money you did have on frivolous things instead of paying your bills. THEN you would have some impulse control issues. There were definitely some issues with this experiment. Twenty minutes is a hell of a long time to a 4-year-old. I almost think there is something very strange about a 4-year-old who can control himself that long. OR perhaps he/she doesn’t even like marshmallows. I certainly would not have been in any hurry to eat that thing as a 4-year-old.

    Spydergrrl – There you go. He’s going to be a huge success and be able to keep you in your old age in the style to which you’ve become accustomed. Or even better!

    Geewits – You do. And you’re quite right.

    Leah – Did you do the experiment? Also, you’d have to do it when they’re both 4. Unless there’s a physiological problem, impulse control can be learned. Don’t give in to kids right away on everything. Make them save some of their allowance for something they really want. Make them wait for mealtimes instead of gorging on stuff in between meals. Stuff like that. Don’t rush out and get them the latest gadget or toy as soon as it hits the market (Lots of adults seem to have a huge issue with this one, don’t they?)

    MM – Did you fire up the barbie last night and make smores?

  10. Thanks. Now I want a S’more…

    To answer – I am both impulsive and patient, depending on the setting. At work, patience is a job requirement. But at home, I often speak or act off the cuff.

    My spouse and I are pretty good a mitigating the impacts of our impulsiveness. If I want to buy some random thing on the spur of the moment, she will usually say “whoa big guy…” and I do the same.

    BUT, it is a problem when one doesn’t counter the other. That’s when we end up going to Cuba or somewhere tropical at the last minute… blowing several thousands of dollars that were earmarked for mundane things, like paying down credit cards.

    Happily for our bank account and credit rating, this doesn’t happen often!

  11. @XUP

    LOL! Nice study….using four-year olds. What did they expect?

    Kids that age are only slightly smarter than chimps…some of them arent’ even potty trained, yet.

    And they’er basically sociopaths…it takes ~ 18-20 years to properly socialize and educate a human. (At least, in our society it does).

    @Brett
    I’m suprised to you didnt’ start a paleo-debate over the mention of rice and grains and lentils! 🙂

  12. My self control in terms of money, dieting and unhealthy indulgences is pretty good. BUT I have become addicted to engaging in negative thoughts. It sounds crazy but its true, try as I might, I just “can’t seem to help myself” sometimes from ruminating on negative past events or people.

    But I suppose years ago, negativity became a habit, so I have to try and make positivity a habit.:)

  13. John – I don’t think you should need another person to keep your impulses in check. Do you seriously think you would just blow all your money on stuff and fall behind in your bills if your spouse wasn’t keeping you tethered and/or vice versa?

    Friar – Actually chimps are smarter. They did a similar experiment with chimps and almost all of them caught on right away and waited for the experimenter to come back so they could get double the treats. But I don’t think they expected the 4-year-olds to be perfectly controlled and socialized. At 4 a kid should have learned a bit of self-discipline — how to soothe himself when hurt, how to protect himself from certain dangers, how to keep his temper in check, how to stop himself doing harm to himself and others, etc… Not to the extent an adult should be able to do these things, but there should be some indication that the kid is moving in the right direction. That’s what this experiment was intended to test, I think.

    Pauline – I don’t know if that negativity thing falls into the same category as impulse control. Perhaps in some ways.

    Jazz- I don’t think there’s a problem with giving in to crazy, fun stuff if you are able to maintain control over the important stuff. When we worry about lack of impulse control it’s about stuff that doesn’t serve you well — like you’re overspending and getting in debt or being promiscuous and miserable about it or drinking too much or collecting, saving and/or buying stuff until there’s no room for you in your house.

  14. Like you say, we’re always telling ourself we shouldn’t eat too much. Shouldn’t drink too much. Shoudlnt’ spend too much. Should excercise more…etc….etc…

    My advice to the kids, is just to grab the damned marhsmallow and eat it NOW, when you can.

    Because when you grow up, there will be more than enough “should” and “shouldnt” rules out there, telling you how to run your life.

  15. I guess I figured I’d summed up a lot of what I said in one or two lines.

    I mean, on the other hand, we are all pretty damned lucky to live in a society where we *can* eat marshmallows, where we *can* choose to overeat if we wish, where we *can* do a lot of the bad things that we do when we lack self-control.

    When there are no marshmallows to eat, self-control is not required, plain and simple…

  16. Reminds me last year, when visting with some friends.

    At the camp fire, the five-year old was trying to get Mummy’s permission to eat another marshmallow.

    Mummy was on the verge of saying “no”. The kid sensed this, and crammed the marshmallow into her mouth, before Mummy could do anything about it.

    Heh heh. That’s another way to deal with it.

    Smart kid, actually. She quickly weighed her options. And on the spot, decided the risk of potential consequences for her actions was worth the extra treat.

  17. @Friar,

    That’s why all of the marshmallows at my house are laced with cayenne pepper extract…

  18. Friar – But teaching your kids that will leave them without any impulse control! Then they’ll just go through life gobbling everything up and damn the consequences. That can’t be good, can it?

    Brett – You couldn’t leave well enough alone, could you? This isn’t about whether we’re lucky to live in a country of plenty or not. It’s about not letting all that plenty make you crazy. We are bombarded with stuff all the time. We need to learn, from a young age, to say “enough”

    Friar – I had a boss like that. He always figured it was easier to ask forgiveness than to ask for permission. I found that to be a damn fine attitude in the public service where getting permission for stuff takes years and mountains of paperwork.

    Ken – Cool. I was hoping someone would try this with their own kid. I can’t wait to hear what happens.

    Chris – Ya, well, that’s a whole other story. I’m sure there were kids in that group, too, who didn’t like marshmallows and had no problems resisting it. I guess it goes to show that kids who don’t like marshmallows also grow up to be successful. Ha!

  19. Children shouldn’t have marshmellows they could stick in their throats and choke them. It was like this experiment was designed to kill the children but it backfired. Stupid science.

  20. My impulse control is excellent, mostly. However, I do have problems keeping my mouth shut.

    Case in point: Today at the drugstore, I was standing in line waiting to pay for my purchases. A couple of girls were talking behind me. The conversation:

    Skinny blonde waif: “So it’s your sister’s birthday next week.”

    Obese goth girl: “Yeah! I got her a prescription to Shape magazine, and a prescription for . I think she’ll be really happy with those prescriptions.”

    Me: “Subscription.”

    Skinny blonde waif and obese goth girl: blank look

    Me: “You buy magazine *subscriptions*, not prescriptions.”

    Skinny blonde waif and obese goth girl: stepped back in deference to my mad English skillz (and gave each other glances like “what the hell?”)

    There was NO WAY I could have bit my tongue. No way.

    Does that count as poor impulse control?

  21. ack. Inadvertently inserted an HTML tag into that post and it ate some words. First exchange should read:
    Obese goth girl: “Yeah! I got her a prescription to Shape magazine, and a prescription for -insert another magazine title here-. I think she’ll be really happy with those prescriptions.”

  22. I agree, XUP.

    It is up to the parents, though.

    Probably any child would eat the marshmallow if not for the parenting she received.

    I mean, I’m pretty sure that a feral child would always eat the marshmallow. The same feral child would not survive or thrive in our society.

    The “impulse control” that some of the 4-year olds displayed was passed on to them by parenting.

    Case in point:

    Many people say my children are “very good kids” (they are 9, 6, 6 and 6) – and I agree, they are.

    They sit quietly in restaurants, they say please and thank you, they don’t burp or fart or cuss.

    They are good kids because I helped them to become that way.

    On the other hand, I see plenty of *adults* who are complete and utter assholes, and if I could, I’d smack the shit out of them behind closed doors, because they don’t behave as well as my 6-year olds when they are out in public.

    I suspect those adults would eat the whole damned bag of marshmallows, and ask for more.

    Spare the rod, spoil the child they say – I say it also applies to adults.

    Never mind charging people when they do something stupid, bring back the pillory, and public floggings in the town square.

  23. Cedar – Hot-diggity you’re absolutely right. We must stop this marshmallow madness immediately. Thank you. You’ve probably saved countless lives today.

    Susan – Har har. I guess so. I used to do a lot more of that sort of thing than I do these days. I discovered that it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference anyway. Do you think those chickies are going to say “subscription” from now on? Nuh uhhhh.

    Brett – Absolutely parenting has everything to do with the way a child is socialized, but some things are more inherent. These kids weren’t told they couldn’t eat the marshmallow. In fact, they were told they could if they wanted to. I think by saying no to our kids sometimes and making them wait for treats we teach them that things don’t happen at the snap of your fingers – but how they cope with the waiting comes primarily from they themselves. That’s why they could do this same experiment with monkeys – although they used the trial and error method instead of the “explanation” method and bananas instead of marshmallows (because even monkeys are smart enough to not eat that crap). The monkeys caught on real quick and were all always willing to wait for double the treat. That’s how they survive.

  24. This is a topic I am very interested in.

    I have reservations about the marshmallow experiment. There are other factors in play besides impulse-control. I don’t think these could be controlled for.

    A child may not trust the experimenter. A child may be making an evolutionarily smart choice by grabbing and eating now in order to move on and eat the next thing elsewhere. Abstract promises of future rewards do not always come to fruition.

    It could be argued that the success-rates show that civilisation selects for compliance and trust in authority.

    I do not think that I would be confident in mounting this case, but I am confident in suggesting that the experiment may well be flawed.

    In my life, I have evidenced what has seemed like great control in some situations and poor control in others. While I believe there is a useful concept of ‘general impulse-control’ that is biologically and behaviourally meaningful (as occasionally shown by the effects of brain-damage – people can become spontaneously violent or inappropriately sexual) I think that the ‘folk’ psychology people employ to explain their own actions and the actions of others can be sorely wanting.

    Often, people simply suffer from mixed motives and do not have a clear sense of their true desires. A child who does not do his homework will be diagnosed ADHD, but in all likelihood his desire to please his elders and so on does not exceed his loathing and resentment for the task. To say ‘poor impulse-control’ in this situation is like labelling a cat as mentally ill because it does not want to dance to Wake Me Up Before You Go-go with its owner.

  25. The Zen master Hakuin was renowned for his great willpower yet struggled to give up booze, tobacco and sweeties. This is a guy who hand-built stone monasteries on mountainsides, fasted in caves for long periods of time, was a master of more than one art, was considered a great teacher, spent hours daily in meditation…

    There is specificity in willpower; it does not seem to be entirely general.

    I am also interested in the philosophical implications of ‘willpower’: people seem to treat it as the fount of ‘free will’ and responsibility, but when we talk about it as this biological property that is affected by parentage and diet, it should be obvious that it is a limited property that is entirely determined by cause effect (i.e. far as we’re concerned, Fate). If people want to argue the existence of true free will they should not conflate it with somethign that is determined by the forces of evolution, nature and nurture.