The marshmallow study

I never liked this experiment, but then... Also, 7 other things worth your time.

We had some friends over Saturday night—ordered pizza, drank some wine (the grownups), toasted marshmallows (the kids).

This led, as it often does, to someone making a joke about the marshmallow experiment.

You know this one, I’m sure. It came out of Stanford University in the early 1960s. Researchers sat kids down and offered them a sweet treat, but then said that if they could sit there staring at it for a few minutes first, they'd get two treats.

The idea was to study the concept of delayed gratification. 

But years later, experiment creator and psychologist Walter Mischel claimed that the children’s reactions could predict their future success in life—things like whether they'd grow up to do well in school, score high on the SAT, make more money, and even if they’d avoid obesity or drug addiction.

Now, I've always had issues with this study, which became one of the most famous and most debated in history.

At the outset, I don't like marshmallows, so I imagined that kids like me wouldn't have done very well on the test itself. (Although, that’s a bit of a fallacy; apparently they used a variety of treats.)

More recently, there have been other reasoned criticisms—the idea that wealthier kids born to lives of privilege would be more likely to delay gratification in the test, because they'd be more likely to believe the authoritative adults running it. 

Kids who'd grown up with less, on the other hand, and who had more experience with untrustworthy adults, might have grabbed the first marshmallow while they could.

Thus, any lack of success in later life they might have had would possibly have been affected more by their childhood circumstances—not because they didn't exhibit self-control.

Now, It’s worth pointing out that Mischel’s own childhood was anything but privileged. He would have had good reason to mistrust authority.

Born into a Jewish family in Austria in 1930, he said it was the childhood experience of being humiliated by members of the Hitler Youth that led him to study how people recalibrate themselves to achieve greater success.

"In terms of my own life goals, it became, how do you restore the situation? How can you transform your life? What are the enabling conditions that allow people to go from being victims to being victors?" Mischel told The Guardian in 2014. 

(The Mischel family escaped the Nazis in 1938 and made it to New York City.)

Separately, Mischel shared some unusual strategies for breaking bad habits that he said he'd used in his own life.

For example, he said he conquered his smoking habit by "recalling the image of a lung-cancer patient,” and when he wanted to avoid dessert, he'd imagine "chocolate mousse ... to be covered in roaches.”

His trick for avoiding the marshmallows in his own experiment, he said, would have been to tell himself that it wasn't a marshmallow at all—but instead a dry, tasteless cotton ball.

This all leads me to have even more questions for Mischel, but sadly, he passed away in 2018, at the age of 88.

So rest in peace, Dr. Mischel. While your conclusions might be debatable, your goals were laudatory, and the next time we have the neighbors over, we’ll raise a toasted marshmallow to your memory.

Or else, maybe more appropriately, we won’t.

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7 other things worth your time

  • “Ireland may give companies one hour’s notice to reduce their use of the national power grid under a plan to manage possible energy shortages through winter, the Sunday Independent reported. The country is at risk of blackouts in the months ahead amid ongoing supply constraints, prompting the government to consider how it will deal with potential scenarios.” (Bloomberg)

  • “Facebook Inc. is struggling to detect and deal with users’ creating multiple accounts on its flagship platform, according to internal documents that raise new questions about how the social-media giant measures its audience.” (WSJ)

  • On the ballot in November in Maine: Should they add an amendment to the state constitution reading, “all individuals have a natural, inherent and unalienable right to grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume the food of their own choosing for their own nourishment, sustenance, bodily health and well-being.” (AP)

  • How the maker of Cheerios and Häagen-Dazs says it’s dealing with supply choices. No big secret really, but it’s interesting how they handle “between 500 and 600 disruptions a month.” (CNN)

  • “Barbados has elected its first ever president as it prepares to become a republic, removing Queen Elizabeth as head of state. Dame Sandra Mason, 72, is set to be sworn in on 30 November, which will mark the country's 55th anniversary of independence from Britain.” (BBC)

  • “Rhode Island plans to create supervised spaces for users to inject illegal drugs, in a big test of the idea that reducing harm to drug users is more effective than criminalization. The two-year pilot, a first for a state, would establish sites where users could also have drugs tested for potentially fatal doses of fentanyl, the potent synthetic opioid that drove overdose deaths to a nationwide record in 2020.” (WSJ)

  • Here’s what happened when Harrison Ford lost his credit card in Italy. (A tourist found it and turned it in, and had one request: “When you give it to him I have only one desire: a photo with him.” Although the photo on social media seems to be Ford in swim trunks, with the local police.) (Your Mileage May Vary, Twitter)


Thanks for reading, as always. I wrote about some of this at Inc.com. Photo: Pixabay. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.