The Marshmallow Prison

I first read about the experiment a few years ago. It seemed cute at first, but the more I thought about it, the more disturbing it was. Could simple choices of such young children really predict their future?

The Marshmallow Prison

The marshmallow test

In the 1960s, at a nursery school at Stanford University, Professor Walter Mischel and his students conducted a simple experiment. They gave a child a choice of a reward - a marshmallow, cookie, pretzel, etc. - and placed it in front of them. Then the experimenter told the child they could have the one treat now or, if they waited till the experimenter returned, they could eat two.

“What the preschoolers did as they tried to keep waiting, and how they did or didn’t manage to delay gratification, unexpectedly turned out to predict much about their future lives.”

The more the young children could wait, the more likely as teenagers they would have higher SAT scores and better social and cognitive abilities. The list of benefits grew further as they grew older: a lower body mass index, better sense of self-worth, greater ability to pursue goals effectively and cope with setbacks.

My heart went out to those little children who ate the marshmallow right away, knowing what was in store for them later in life.

Aristotle, Shakespeare, and me

But were they really doomed? It seems like the wisdom of the ages says our path in life isn’t shaped by Fate as much as by the choices we make throughout life. Aristotle, for example, said “We are what we repeatedly do.” Shakespeare wrote that “The fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves.”

If we’re not mindful of our choices - as with many of our habits - then it may feel like we’re wired to do or not do certain things. But we have a choice nonetheless.

Humans, after all, are the perhaps the most adaptable species on the planet as evidenced by how, unlike most other living things, we live in rain forests and on mountaintops as well as in deserts and on ice.

Although for most of my life I would say things like “I’m not a morning person” or “I could never do that,” I changed whenever I felt I had to. More recently, I learned I could change not just in response to my environment, but in ways that were more self-directed. Whether it’s becoming vegetarian, learning to play the piano, meditating, abstaining from alcohol.

Anyone, in effect, can do whatever they choose to do. It's a matter of cultivating new habits. Difficult, for sure, but readily accomplished by taking small steps, practiced over time, with feedback and peer support. Marshmallow be damned.

The man behind the test

Almost 50 years after the first experiment, Walter Mischel wrote The Marshmallow Test, a book about his life’s work. In the final chapter, he summarizes what the Stoics knew over 2,000 years ago and what we’re proving scientifically only recently.

“The research in this book tells a story…of how self-control can be nurtured in children and adults…The skills that enable this give us the freedom to escape from stimulus control to achieve self-control, thereby giving us real choice - instead of being pushed by the immediate impulses and pressures of the moment…

Rather than being predestined by DNA…we can have an active hand in shaping our fates by how we libel our lives.”

Whether or not the preschoolers ate the marshmallow, throughout their lives they always had a choice.

Now think of the labels you use to describe yourself and the limits they place on you - the prisons large and small that you build as a result.

If you knew you had the key, would you use it?