How The Famous “Marshmallow Test” Got Willpower Wrong


[♪ INTRO ] You may have heard that willpower is the secret
to success, and there’s a super simple test you can give to 5 year olds to see if they’ve
got it. It’s come to be known as The Marshmallow
Test because it involves tempting them with a tasty treat like a marshmallow and seeing
whether they can wait to get an even better treat. If they can, they’re destined for greatness! But it turns out this widely popular psychological
exam isn’t as predictive as we once thought. And while it has taught us a bit about how
self control and resisting temptation work, it’s probably not measuring willpower after
all. It all began in the late 1960s, when psychologists
gave 32 kids this now famous challenge. Researchers put a marshmallow in front of
them and told them they had a choice — they could eat it now, or if they could wait 15
minutes, the researcher would come back with another one, and then they could have two. Right away they found some interesting things
— like kids who distracted themselves with happier thoughts could wait longer than kids
who focused on the marshmallow. So, they had dozens more kids take the test
in the early 1970s. Then, they checked back in on them as they
grew up… which is when things got weird. Researchers were able to get in touch with
94 kids that participated in those early studies in the late 1980s, and it turned out those
who did better at fighting the temptation of the marshmallow did better on the SAT. After another decade, the scientists followed
up again — and found those who waited continued further in their education. Another decade passed, and lo and behold,
these now-adults revealed that the more patient they were as kids, the lower their body mass
index was on average. This seemed to paint a pretty clear picture
to psychologists: willpower is a really important trait that’s pretty stable over time, and
how much of it you have is set early on in life. Soon, parents heard all this and took it to
heart. They thought if they could just get their
kids to wait for that second marshmallow, they’d be setting them up for a better life. The actor Tom Hiddleston even visited Sesame
Street to teach cookie monster about the importance of waiting for the second cookie! But continued research into the marshmallow
test suggests it never really measured willpower in the first place. That’s partly because psychologists don’t
really think of “willpower” as its own thing anymore. You have to take into account what you’re
exerting power over — if you’re exerting self-control, what’s the impulse you’re fighting? This is what’s called a reward response. Basically, when you see something that serves
a biological need like food, or sex, or even social acceptance, some regions of your brain
get really active. One such region is called the ventral striatum,
in particular the part of it called the nucleus accumbens. And this response varies from person to person
and depending on the thing that’s rewarding them. Like, smokers shown pictures of other people
smoking while having their brains scanned show a much bigger reward response than non-smokers. And the stronger the reward response you have
to something, the more self-control you need to abstain. You can think of the reward response kind
of like a car’s gas and self-control like its brakes. You don’t need your brakes to work great if
your car never gets going that fast — but the more sensitive the gas pedal is, the more
important your brakes are. And a recent check-in with kids from the original
marshmallow study found that this was part of their story, too. 26 of them had their brains scanned while
completing a go/no-go task, meaning they had to click a butt on when some emotional
faces were presented, but exercise self-control for other faces. And you could see a difference in their brains
of the ones that waited for a second marshmallow at age 4. But, that difference wasn’t in regions associated
with self-control like the prefrontal cortex. It was in that ventral striatum. Those who had waited had less activation compared
to those who struggled. So it wasn’t like they were exerting more
willpower, they just had a weaker impulse to control. The original marshmallow test also failed
to take some other really important factors into account — like, they didn’t measure
how much the kids trusted the experimenter to actually give them that second marshmallow. Studies have shown that pretty much no one
waits around for some hypothetical reward if they don’t believe it’s actually coming. And in a study published in 2018, some researchers
tried to replicate the original study, but this time, with over 900 people. They found that, yes, there’s a relationship
between waiting for a second marshmallow and measures of achievement like standardized
test scores — but it looks like it might be one of those classic correlation-isn’t-causation
things. Because after they controlled for other factors
in the home environment and the family’s income and socioeconomic status, the effect all but
disappeared. This would suggest it’s not willpower that
matters so much as the benefits of having wealth and being raised in a home environment
where your parents can give you a lot of attention. So now, it seems pretty clear that there are
a lot of factors that affect willpower — and none of them are set in stone at age 4. In fact, current evidence suggests that you
can learn how to exert more willpower as an adult. Like with most things, you can improve your
self-control with practice. One study randomized 69 volunteers into one
of several different self-control practice conditions, or a control group. The volunteers who practiced spent two weeks
either focusing on their posture, on staying in a positive mood, or tracking their eating. And all these different practices improved
their endurance on a hand-grip task at the end of the two weeks compared to the control
group. But when it comes to specific cases where
you feel you lack willpower, what many psychologists recommend is much simpler: just change your
environment so you don’t have to exert so much self-control in the first place. Like, if you’ve got a package of cookies
on the counter and a healthy snack in the pantry, you should probably switch those. Because if those cookies are right in front
of you, you’re going to want to eat them — and no one can control that impulse forever. Thanks for watching! If you liked learning the truth about self-control,
you might like our episode on how you don’t have as much control over things as you think. But one thing you can control is whether you
catch every episode of SciShow Psych! All you have to do is click that subscribe
button. [ ♪OUTRO ]

43 thoughts on “How The Famous “Marshmallow Test” Got Willpower Wrong

  • Please do a video on temporal motivation theory! it's fascinating! (or in it's popular name "the procrastination equation")

  • 4:50 change your environment so you don't have to exert willpower.

    "Doctor, doctor! It hurts when I do this!"
    "Well don't DO that!"

    Is it reasonable to tell a patient with no home support or means to stay off their broken ankles?

  • How do they explain the kid that waited for the second marshmallow so that they could give it to their friend?

  • It be interesting to know how the kids that couldn't abstain eating that marshmallow faired later in life. They never mention that. I've only heard about how great the abstaining kids were doing.

  • Similar to alcoholics continuously working on staying sober. Focus on it every day, keep your environment clear of temptation etc.

  • Relativity…if only researchers knew and kept within their order of motions the Full implications of the word Relativity, Einstein would be a very much happy man to see just how much more farther his original idea gets beyond that of what he first realized for it when he made cases around it. But you getting closer.

  • Absolute willpower is an illusion and that is why good scientists don't give so much credit to is as a main driver. Cause if you also look at the results of several studies on neurobiology/neuropsychology, it is not really as simple as "you" having control over your decision. A more realistic willpower is much closer to your glucose level. It depletes over time. And therefore the best performing people are those that are, to some extent, more predisposed to doing something that could actually help them. Some of us as more broken than others. That said, we are all broken but somehow functional.

  • The early environmental factors are probably one of the most important factors influencing a child's life, change my mind.

  • Whether the cause is the ventral striatum or the prefrontal cortex, the heightened ability to self-regulate will still produce better life outcomes. Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that…

  • If I was given that test, I would have been too busy squishing the marshmallow. I like to play with things and see how they work

  • QQ: Why do we make funny faces on Snapchat? Little kids even start making silly faces as soon as they see themselves in video like FaceTime. Why do we do this?

  • Can you make a video about what drives people into scribbling horrible crap into their skin in a permanent way ?

  • Kids who have known real hunger, who have had to eat their food quickly otherwise their elder siblings would get it, would struggle to wait 15 minutes (an eternity for a 5 year old!) for a better treat. Any child who has reason to have little faith in the future would be conditioned to eat the treat whilst it was in front of them. It's not fair to ascribe that to a lack of willpower.

  • My mom “protected” me from video games and not have a video game stem because I’ll get addicted, now I play games on my phone

  • Could you do something on "rage rooms" I'd like something more than what Psychology today has to say on the matter.

  • I've seen, like, two comments complaining about her tattoos and I have no idea why people would have an issue with that. Idiots lol

  • I wonder if they bothered asking if the kid actually LIKES marshmallows before they assumed this will require willpower from them

  • "Okay children, you can eat the marshmallow now…" *kid instantly gobbles down*"… or you can wait and have 3 later…"
    Kid: "but how is that fair, I don't have a marshmallow to wait for."
    Researcher realise test stupid and hands out the rest of marshmallows amongst the kids.

  • These tests showed that a stable home life with a father present had the greatest influence on delayed gratification and future life success.

  • i don't get why it would be considered willpower in the first place, i mean that assumes that all the children are like sitting at the edge of their seat trying their best not to leap out towards the marshmallow. like no.

    maybe if you made sure they had a raging sweet tooth and empty stomachs first. but otherwise nah.

  • I could have figured out that some of the kids who waited for the second marshmallow weren't really struggling. Because of that impulse thing. I saw a blog about a woman who said she felt like she was hitting a wall whenever she took a jog that took her by a donut shop. I'm like seriously? Really? Willpower isn't even a thing when you don't have that problem in the first place.

  • When I'm fasting, not having food available does wonders. Also, I imagine myself eating, with exquisite detail, what I'm tempted to eat at the moment. This tricks the brain somehow and lowers the craving to make it tolerable (I got the idea from a research about this).
    In the Devil's Advocate the say that God tells you to: "Look but don't touch. Touch, but don't taste. Taste, don't swallow". This is it. There are layers of temptation and every following layer is harder to resist. Do you want to win over it? Don't look at it or even think of it. Change your "mind subject" as soon as you see the idea popping up (like if you where meditating).

  • It makes sense if it would measure privlage.Can you imagine how a hungry child with negative parents who take the sweet things in life away from them would fare against well fed children who's parents fill them with the happy thoughts to last and saturate them with literal and metaphorical sweetness?

  • This measures value judgements, not willpower. One might not want two marshmallows and might just want one. Or one might value a single marshmallow now more than two marshmallows in 15 minutes.

    What if you were offered one marshmallow now, or two marshmallows in ten years? Almost everyone would choose one marshmallow now. This is a measure of value judgement (economics) not willpower.

  • I've watched a few videos on this experiment, and the thing I noticed is the kids sit in front of the marshmallow, staring at it, not leaving their seat to find something to get their mind off the deal. Yeah, if I was forced to just sit in front of a Big Mac and stare at it, it would be gone in a heartbeat, but if I had access to a TV, or books, or a computer, or a sibling, or chores to do, I could probably take my mind off of it.

    I don't think anyone believes the Marshmallow Experiment is a panacea, but I think it might be a good place to start, just to see where your kid is at before you start him on counseling.

  • So, never believe too strongly in the conclusions of a study, when it first comes out. Besides the need for the study to be replicated by others in other locations, the entire process needs to analized -peer reviewed and sort of placed on trial.

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