Posted by: Ticktock | March 16, 2009

Marshmallow Temptations

WNYC’s Radiolab had an excellent podcast about Columbia professor, Walter Mischel, and his longitudinal psychology study on how willpower is related to success.

Dr. Mischel did a study on his kids’ pre-school classmates to test how children would react to being offered marshmallows.  This research had a twist, as you may have guessed.  The kids were put in isolation and offered a choice of one marshmallow now or two marshmallows later.  Dr. Mischel monitored the children to see whether they would wait and how long they could last.  The study confirmed his hypothesis that children develop a strong sense of self control around four years of age.

Years passed, and one day, Dr. Mischel casually asked how some of their classmates from the original study were doing.  Oddly, he noticed a correlation between the progress of the children as tweens and their ability to resist a marshmallow in pre-k years earlier.  The ‘marshmallow’ kids were brought together for a non-anecdotal reassessment of their progress to see if the anecdotal information matched reality.  The data was unexpected and shocking.  The correlation between a preschooler’s willpower and his later progress on SATs and GPAs as a teen were surprisingly statistically significant.

The kids were tested again as adults, and the correlations were even more striking and widespread.  Jad and Robert, the corny radiolab hosts, were left puzzling whether this study implied that a person’s fate was hardwired.  I don’t know if I would go that far, but it was an excellent podcast.  To be fair, I love ALL the Radiolab podcasts, but this one particularly captured my imagination.  Good stuff!


  1. This is really interesting. A more important question is: how can we help kids to have this willpower in the first place? Is it even possible to make someone have more willpower? I would really like to know because I don’t have much of it.

  2. I definately think it is possible to make someone have more willpower. In fact, the world is in need of it. This is why you see so many self-help products, motivational speakers, etc. Much more vs. before. I think we can give kids willpower by empowering them, by rewarding their successes. I think the key would be to allow for change. We’re generally lazy & history proves the masses like the status quo.

    Just wanted to say great blog, I’ve been looking for something like this where I can find good hard evidence and research.

    Will be following you on Twitter.
    Thanks again!

  3. If Tuccelli Marshmallows were used in the study, you must consider the Pleasure Principle theory of human behavior. The kids would take the marshmallow that was offered to them and not want to think about what may be offered tomorrow. Tuccelli Marshmallows are just too good to resist. As Wimpy used to say in the old Popeye Cartoons “I’d gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today “

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