The Marshmallow Test

As I was leaving for work yesterday, there was an interview with a guy on The Current on CBC yesterday morning about the Marshmallow Test.

Basic premise is you sit a kid down in a room with a marshmallow and tell them that they can eat the marshmallow whenever they want. However, the experimenter tells them, if they can wait 15 minutes until the experimenter comes back, the kid gets another marshmallow. Deferred gratification.

The original Marshmallow experiment followed its subjects for twenty years. It found that the kids who were able to defer gratification were more likely to do significantly better in school, have more friends and were generally considered more competent. Whether or not you can hold off stuffing a marshmallow in your face for 15 minutes when you’re 4 years old is a strong predictor of success later in life.

Anna Maria Tremonti (the host of The Current) wanted to focus on what this means for kids today (Kids today!) with their twitters and facebooks and ended up glossing over the most significant thing in the interview.

The marshmallow test is predictive, but it’s not fatalistic. Impulse control can be learned. It can be taught.

More than that, we have this image of self-discipline being stiff-upper-lippedness. Stoic resistance to pleasure. But the kids in the marshmallow test who were successful were the ones who were able to “strategically allocate their attention.” They were able to use distractions–singing songs, running around the room, study the ceiling tiles–rather than agonize over not eating the marshmallow.