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In the New York Times Magazine, there was another recounting of the infamous marshmallow study, called: We Didn’t Eat the Marshmallow. The Marshmallow Ate Us. These studies were originally based on questioning the benefits of delayed gratification, more recently they have been seen as strategic planning strategies. Being able to postpone a reward like that is considered an important part of emotional and social maturity. It may also vary according to a child’s life experiences in regards to trust.

In a series of famous experiments in the 1960s and ’70s conducted by the Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel, preschoolers were invited to sit alone in a room furnished only with a small desk. On the desk sat two marshmallows (or equivalently tempting treats) and a bell. The researcher told each child that he had to leave, but that when he returned, she could eat both marshmallows. If she wanted one marshmallow before then, however, she could ring the bell and eat one, but not both. Then the researcher shut the door, leaving the child alone with the forbidden marshmallows.

If you got a chance to read the New York Times article you’ll know that it was a lot of the same old, same old – that you’ve already read before. But one interesting concern about children being raised in an unstable environment and the possibility of them not trusting that the examiner and only knowing “the only guaranteed treats are the ones you have already swallowed,” is an interesting take on the experiment outcomes. This concept came from the Rochester researchers Celeste Kidd, Holly Palmeri and Richard N. Aslin and their experimentation entitled “Rational Snacking.” In this experiment, an adult gave them some crayons to color with…

The crayons were in bad shape: old, broken in half, worn down, or papers peeled off. After a few minutes, the adult in the room left and promised to come back with better crayons. When the adult returned, sometimes he/she had the crayons and sometimes he/she didn’t. In the reliable-adult condition (where the adult kept her promise), children performed better on the marshmallow test than in the unreliable-adult condition. That suggests that the children used the adult’s trustworthiness about the crayons to judge whether or not it was worth waiting for another marshmallow. 

This tends to make a lot of sense and since all 653 participants in the original marshmallow test were children from parents working at Stanford University, were the chances better that these kids came from stable homes? Possibly, and as most of the parents were obviously bright, does that factor skew the results?

By now, you are probably all tired of hearing about Walter Mischel and his marshmallow experiments. Just in case you didn’t know, much later Mischel began analyzing the results of his study and he noticed the children who couldn’t wait to earn the second marshmallow, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems and do poorly in school. They got lower S.A.T. scores and struggled with college. Caution: (Mischel does caution against using his research to predict the fate of individual children.)

Take a look at this TED Talk with Joachim de Posada, he says, Don’t eat the marshmallow … yet

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