The Marshmallow Test

Almost 50 years ago, Dr. Walter Mischel, psychologist and, at the time, a professor at Stanford University, conducted a series of studies on delayed gratification often referred to as The Marshmallow Experiment. During the study, Mischel’s team tested over 600 children looking for signs of delayed gratification and self-control. A child was offered a choice between one treat (a cookie, marshmallow, or pretzel) to eat immediately or two treats to eat later if they waited for a period of time (approximately 15 minutes). While the child waited, the tester would leave the room and then return with the treat after the allotted time.

Continuing research with these original participants demonstrated a correlation between the amount of time the child was able to wait and better “life outcomes” as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, and social and cognitive competence. (Szalavitz, 2011)

Is future success determined by age 4? Not necessarily, Mischel’s research and other studies do not conclude that professional success is determined by self-control in preschool. However, there is evidence that work on self-control and delayed gratification positively impacts a child’s ability to focus and complete undesirable tasks.

The good news for parents is that self-control can be taught and improved from an early age. Try these strategies at home:


Calm and Reassure. When your child is upset, talk to her calmly and reassure her.


Provide clear choices. Use directives instead of asking unless there is a choice


Use “First/Then” statements. An example of a “First/Then” statement is first to pick up your toy, then we can read a book.


Start Small. Encourage your child to work on a more challenging activity for two minutes before stopping to play a game. Work to increase the amount on a focused activity over time.

School Age

Self-Improvement. Encourage your child to work to improve himself in one area each day by just a little bit to increase self-control and delayed gratification.


Szalavitz, M. (2011, Sept 6). “The Secrets of Self-Control: The Marshmallow Test 40 Years Later.” Retrieved on December 16, 2015 from

Wikipedia. Stanford marshmallow experiment. Retrieved on December 20, 2016 from




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