If you’ve ever investigated the culture of business or self improvement, you’ve likely heard tell of the marshmallow test: the study done at Stanford in the 1960s on young kids attending the university’s preschool program. Run by professor of psychology Walter Mischel, the test involved placing a marshmallow in front of a preschooler and telling them that, if they could successfully hold off eating that marshmallow for AN ETERNITY (fifteen minutes), they’d get a second marshmallow as a reward — then leaving them alone to rely on their own willpower. Mischel and team then tracked the kids into later life, and found that the ability to delay gratification led to greater incidences of “good” personality traits, like confidence — as well as, critically, higher SAT scores.
A new study out of NYU is now calling this classic test into question. This new team has tried the test again with an expanded subject pool, both in terms of numbers (900 versus the original 90), and of factors like race/ethnicity, parents’ education level, and household income. With a more representative sample, they have discovered that self-control is less an individual choice and more a result of social and economic background — and that in turn is the stronger predictor of later success.
“[A]mong kids whose mothers did not have college degrees, those who waited did no better than those who gave in to temptation, once other factors like household income and the child’s home environment at age 3 […] were taken into account. For those kids, self-control alone couldn’t overcome economic and social disadvantages.
The failed replication of the marshmallow test does more than just debunk the earlier notion; it suggests other possible explanations for why poorer kids would be less motivated to wait for that second marshmallow. For them, daily life holds fewer guarantees: There might be food in the pantry today, but there might not be tomorrow, so there is a risk that comes with waiting. And even if their parents promise to buy more of a certain food, sometimes that promise gets broken out of financial necessity.”
In short, context is key! In science and, most importantly, in life. Sometimes, personal responsibility includes taking ownership of your context in addition to your actions, and recognizing when the latter might not help you out with the former. Now, as an adult, I’m off to snack on as many marshmallows as my heart desires!