Widgets Magazine


Oh! Sweet Nuthin’: Peep Psychology

There’s an old psych study colloquially referred to as “the Marshmallow Experiment.” It was originated by Stanford’s Walter Mischel in the sixties and has since been repeated many times over. In the test, a four-year-old is seated in a room with a marshmallow in front of him. He is told he’ll be left alone for fifteen minutes. He can eat the marshmallow now, but if he waits until the experimenter comes back, he can have another marshmallow in addition to this one. The experimenter leaves, and the child is videotaped battling his will. Adorableness ensues.

Something like 70 percent of kids succeed at waiting. Almost all the rest struggle and fail, succumbing to fluffy temptation. The results of the test are correlated, unscientifically speaking, with overall performance in life: SAT scores, level of education, income and so on. The patient child has already learned to suppress his impulse for immediate gratification, opening up many doors for him later in life. The impatient child’s will, on the other hand, is like the marshmallow he has such trouble resisting: soft, yielding, insubstantial. His will be a life of indulging now and suffering the consequences later.

Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford neurology professor, would likely say the predictive power of the marshmallow marker is a clear demonstration of the biological basis of personality. Marshmallow-now children are more likely to fall into substance addiction or lives of crime. And Sapolsky’s all about showing that we punish people for things they’re ultimately not responsible for (example: burning schizophrenics at the stake for witchcraft). But the armchair biologist in me is more interested in the evolution of the temptation than its underlying anatomy. Why is it so darn hard (because even for the successful kids, it is hard: their legs swinging like little pendula, their eyes fixed ceiling-ward, counting tiles and fiercely avoiding the plate in front of them) to resist that marshmallow? Once we’ve decided it’s better to defer our gratification, why are we battling our bodies at every turn until the matter is out of our hands? How could twisting ourselves into these knots ever be adaptive?

The answer I’ve reached is pretty straightforward. Before I spell it out, let me attempt a convoluted illustration of my point: a new variation on the Marshmallow Experiment. A child is left in the room with the marshmallow and the same instructions as before. She is left to hang there for a good ten minutes, tugging at her braids, fighting her impulses. Then a man in a gorilla suit bursts through the door, gobbles up the marshmallow and runs out. (Caveat: this will likely make many children cry.)

I don’t expect this to yield any valuable predictive measures, and I wouldn’t even know how to start quantifying reactions, beyond maybe timing the ensuing tantrums. (I do, however, think that this is fertile ground for hilarious YouTube videos. The scripted sketch-comedy version might be even better. The researcher could return and act very upset that the marshmallow is gone, then threaten some silly British penalty as his gorilla-suited minions seize the subject to carry him away. Just a thought.) What this version does do is provide us with a context in which the marshmallow-now phenotype wins. The body beats the will, and it turns out better for everyone in the end.

Our bodies are adapted to an uncertain world, one in which it is much more likely that food will be snatched from under our noses than it is that we’ll be awarded more for merely waiting to eat it. I think that almost all of the children believe that the experimenter is prepared to uphold his side of the deal. But here our bodies seem to know what our minds so often forget: you can’t logically predict the future. There’s no guarantee that the first marshmallow will still be here fifteen minutes from now, nor that the experimenter will ever return, nor that the building won’t collapse (and you’d definitely be glad for the extra energy in the immediate aftermath of an earthquake-induced apocalypse). Your body wants to force you to take the sure thing now rather than gamble on induction–a hard-coded impulse to live for the present.

As Stanford students, chances are we were in the marshmallows-later category. And Stanford is, in many ways, one big series of marshmallow experiments. This is why our bodies rebel when we spend a Friday night coding instead of going out–it recognizes that we’re investing in a future that just might not be. If we’re going to win, we can never forget the reality of that risk, and we should always know just what it is that we’re waiting for. Some marshmallows are sweeter or surer than others.

Want your marshmallow sooner that than later? Place an order at rcima@stanford.edu.

  • Steven Crane

    Yay for a psych article in the daily! And bonus points for conjecture on what “Robert Sapolsky… would likely say.” Haha!

  • Rachael M

    Very nice article, Rosie!