The Marshmallow Experiment| November 16, 2021
How a little candy explained so much…
If someone offers you a marshmallow, what do you do? Say thank you, make a brachah, and pop it in your mouth? Save it until you can eat it in peace and quiet?
How a person eats a marshmallow may not seem very significant, but one researcher thought differently. His famous experiment proved that eating a candy might not be such a simple thing!
Predicting the Future
Nobody believed Walter Mischel when he came up with his theory.
“I can tell you if a four-year-old will be successful or not,” he declared.
All his researcher friends thought there was no way he could prove it. That is, until they saw the results of the experiment that made headlines.
And it was all because of a candy.
Owen, age 4:
Mischel led little Owen by the hand into a room.
He sat him down at a table and put a marshmallow in front of him.
“Do you see this marshmallow?”
Owen nodded, eyes longingly fixed on the treat.
“You can eat it right now or…” the researcher paused. “You can wait in this room for 15 minutes, and if you don’t eat it by the time I come back, then I’ll give you two marshmallows.”
Owen waited for the door to close. As soon as it did, he glanced around, snatched up the marshmallow, and stuffed it into his mouth.
Katya, age 5:
“Hi Katya, do you see this marshmallow?”
“Yes!” Katya chirped eagerly, reaching out for it.
Ebbesen, Mischel’s assistant, held it out of her reach. “Do you think you can wait?”
Katya looked uncertain.
“Well, if you wait 15 minutes, you’ll get two marshmallows.”
Katya’s face lit up.
Once the researcher left, she put her head down on the table and waited. After a minute she looked up, glanced longingly at the marshmallow, and put her head back down again. She swung her legs, sang songs, picked up the marshmallow and played with it, but when the researcher came back in the room, the marshmallow sat there, uneaten.
So what does that prove?
Two kids. Two different results.
But what was the point?
There were 40 kids who were taken that day, each of them placed into rooms by themselves and given the exact same instructions.
The results were different for each child. Some children didn’t even wait for the researcher to leave before grabbing the marshmallows. Some managed to wait a minute or two before succumbing to temptation. Some kids picked up the marshmallow and took a small bite out of the bottom where the researcher wouldn’t be able to see.
And some managed to wait the entire 15 minutes, a long time for a kindergartener who’s not being entertained, and were rewarded with another marshmallow.
It took a long time…
“Okay, so we have all the results.” Ebbesen told Mischel. “Now what?”
“Now we wait.” Mischel rubbed his hands together. “We wait a couple of years.”
The researchers had a file for each child, and every year they would enquire about the child’s progress and record the results. They would check out what grades they were getting in school and how healthy they were. When the children got older, they would find out what job offers they got and how much money they were making.
And as time went on, they noticed an interesting pattern.
Kids like Owen, the ones who couldn’t wait for that second marshmallow, didn’t do as well in school or weren’t as successful in life as the kids like Katya. The children who were able to wait those 15 minutes did better in every area.
“I don’t understand,” Ebbesen told Mischel. “How did you know that the children who waited to eat their marshmallow would be so successful?
“Simple,” Mischel told them. “It’s all about delaying gratification.
Not eating a marshmallow isn’t the only way to know if you will accomplish great things in life. Here are some other things you can work on to help you succeed:
>What happens when your mother prepares a supper you’ve never had before? Do you taste it or just go for some cereal and milk? Being willing to try new things is a great way to set yourself up for success. Next time you’re playing with friends on a Shabbos afternoon, maybe pull out that game you never tried because it looked too complicated and have fun figuring it out!
>Have a talent? Do you play an instrument? Does everyone love the way you draw? Maybe you make up skits and perform them with your siblings every Shabbos. Whatever your talent is, keep working on it! The only way to get better is to practice and practice.
I’m sure this one won’t surprise you. Being an avid reader is one of the top predictors for success. You know what they say… The more you read, the more you know and then the more curious you get. So keep reading that Junior!
Delaying gratification? No four year old knows what that means!
Do you know what it means to delay gratification?
When your mother gives you a candy as a reward, do you eat it right away or save it for Shabbos?
If you said wait for Shabbos, congratulations! You are able to delay gratification. You are able to push off enjoying something so you can enjoy it even more later on.
When someone can say to themselves, “I will read my book after I finish studying because then I will enjoy it more,” or “I will go to sleep on time so that I will be able to have fun on my trip tomorrow and not fall asleep on the way,” then they are delaying gratification.
The children who were able to wait for the marshmallow? They were great at delaying gratification. They knew how to wait for that yummy extra marshmallow. That ability to delay gratification helped them be more successful in their later lives.
But what if you weren’t born with the ability? What about the children who grabbed the marshmallow right away? Was there any way they could learn to delay gratification?
The Marshmallow Experiment — Updated!
The experiment was done again by other researchers — but with a twist.
In one case, half the children were given a small box of crayons that were hard to open.
“If you wait a few minutes, we’ll bring much better art supplies!” the researchers promised.
Although all the children waited, none of them ended up getting the promised art supplies. “I’m so sorry,” they told the kids. “We don’t have any left.”
They fed the second group of kids the same story but in this case, the researchers brought them a beautiful art kit.
They repeated this same experiment again on the two groups, this time with stickers. Again, both groups were promised better stickers if they waited. Again, one group, the same group that had received the better art supplies received them and one did not.
Immediately afterward the researchers did the marshmallow experiment on the children.
Can you guess what happened?
The children who had been promised prizes that were never received didn’t bother waiting. They realized that nothing good came out of it.
On the other hand, all the children who had positive experiences with the researchers’ promises were able to wait for the marshmallow. Each time they successfully waited and then received their prize they learned two things.
1: Waiting is worth it.
2: I am able to wait.
This important tweak on the marshmallow experiment proved that learning how to delay gratification is something that can be taught.
Mischel still hasn’t finished his experiment. Even today, he still keeps tabs on those children, some of whom are grandparents now. Although we don’t know what will happen to those children in the future, Mischel has definitely proven his theory. Sometimes, it is worthwhile to wait.
Do you want to learn how to delay gratification?
Try it at home!
First, pick a friend to do the experiment with.
Then, each of you should choose a candy from the store that you never got a chance to try (get your mother’s permission first!)
Then, put the candy in a spot where you’ll see it. (Don’t hide it in a drawer!) Leave it there for three days.
If by the end of three days, you still haven’t eaten that candy, you and your friend can go together to the store to buy another candy because you successfully passed the experiment.
If candy doesn’t make you excited, you can substitute it for something that does!
Can you wait for that marshmallow?
Take this quiz and find out!
You have a big test the next day. When you get home from school you…
- Start studying immediately. No use pushing it off! Well Done!
- Snack on your mother’s freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and then start studying. You’re done in time to read your new library book before bed.
- After playing with your siblings and reading a few chapters of your book, you sit down to study. You finish just in time for bed.
- You read your entire book before you start studying. Your eyes are closing by the time you’re finished.
Your rebbi tells the class that anyone who memorizes 40 Mishnayos by the end of the month will get a special prize. You
- Make a chart of how many Mishnayos you’re going to learn each night. You’re really excited to do this.
- Plan to learn a couple of Mishnayos each night. You don’t always do it but by cramming it into the last week, you manage.
- You really want to try but you don’t end up studying each night because the weather’s great, and you’d rather play ball. You end up memorizing them all the last night.
- Don’t bother trying. You’re not very good with these contests.
Your teacher just announced that the Lamed-Tes Melachos project is worth 25% of your grade — and that you can pick your partner. You know that you’ll be spending a lot of time on this project and that your choice of whom you’re going to work with will have a big effect on your grade. You choose…
- Someone you won’t really have such fun working with, but who is very studious. You might not have much to talk about but you’ll get a great grade!
- You pick someone you are friendly with and who you think you’ll work well with. You’ll have a good time (you hope) and get a good grade (you hope). Win-win!
- Last time, you worked with this friend, you spent a lot more time laughing than you did working but by working really hard, you got an okay grade. It’s important to have fun when you work, isn’t it?
- You pick your best friend! There’s no way you’re spending hours working on a project with someone you can’t have fun with. That is the most important part.
Your grandparents gave you five dollars for Chanukah. You thank them and then you…
- Add it to the money you have saved up in the bottom drawer of your night table. You almost have enough for a new bike!
- Save it in your drawer for three days until you decide to spend it on a treat you really want.
- Wait until you get to school the next day. When you see the eighth graders selling hot chocolate, you decide to buy some.
- Run to the store and buy three bars of chocolate. Yum!
Your father promises you that if you go to sleep early every night for the next two weeks then he’ll take you along to the next bar mitzvah. You:
- Make sure to do your homework every night as soon as you get home from school so you can be in bed on time.
- Are so excited about the idea but it’s hard for you to do it each night. Some nights you don’t hop into bed until the very last second.
- You really try — for a week. Then one night all of your brothers are home and you don’t make it to bed until it’s too late.
- You’re out after the first night. There’s just too much going on to get to bed so early!
Mostly As: You are excellent at delaying gratification. You have your priorities straight and you probably do very well in school. At the same time, it may be worth becoming a little bit more spontaneous — you might have more fun that way.
Mostly Bs: You’re doing a great job delaying gratification. You know how to relax and have fun when necessary, but for the most part, you’re getting done what needs to get done at the right time!
Mostly Cs: You have your priorities straight but you have a hard time following through and successfully delaying gratification. When you need to make a decision, you may want to figure out what’s most important to you and act accordingly.
Mostly Ds: You’re probably someone your friends enjoy being around because you know how to have a great time. At the same time, you need to work on pushing off some of those fun things and make room for some of the important but not as exciting parts of life. Good luck!
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr, Issue 886)
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