Marshmallow experiment

For those of you who have never heard about the marshmallow experiment *1, it is a psychology test in which children were offered a choice between one marshmallow immediately or two marshmallows if they waited for a short period of time, approximately 15 minutes. During that time the tester left the room and then returned. For a child to wait for 15 minutes when sweets are in front of him is a very long time. In comparison, for a child to wait that long is similar to an adult addicted to coffee to wait for his morning coffee for two hours.

The researchers did a follow-up study after 10 years, assessing the same children who were part of the initial experiment, and they found that children who were able to wait longer for the higher rewards tended to have better life outcomes; they were generally more successful, they had better health and better scores in school, and many other things.

Basically what this mean is that delayed gratification *2, or the ability to resist the temptation of an immediate reward and wait for a later reward, can have a significant impact on someone’s life.

Research also points out that delaying gratification is a skill that can be learned, especially during early childhood. But there is a catch to this: in order for a child or an adult to learn this skill, the environment has to be reliable.

In 2012, the University of Rochester did a study in which they did the same experiment but divided the children into two groups: the unreliable tester group, where the testers gave broken promises, and the reliable tester group. They found that the reliable tester group waited up to four times longer (12 minutes) than the unreliable tester group for the second marshmallow to appear.

This is the point when I would like to engage you in a thought experiment . Imagine all possible things researchers have not thought about and have not included in the marshmallow experiment, but that could have happened and that are happening in our world on a daily basis.

The basic setup is this: a room, a tester, a child, a reward, a promise of double reward.

The following are some of my questions:

  • Will hunger impact the outcome of test and by how much?
  • What if the child is under stress during an experiment or was stressed before an experiment?
  • What impact does the origin of child have on the test? Do children from poor families perform the same as children from rich families?
  • What would happen if the child were left to wait indefinitely?
  • What if we just measure the time of the breaking point, when the child eventually cannot wait anymore and eats the marshmallow, which is followed by the tester going in, causing the effect of “I am so unlucky, if I just waited for few seconds more I would have got second marshmallow” in the child?
  • At what point of time will the child stop being distracted by the reward and look for a parent?
  • What if the child has to go to the toilet? Will the child go to the toilet and leave the marshmallow or just bring the marshmallow with him? If he/she left the marshmallow, what would be his/her reaction if the marshmallow were not there anymore when he/she comes back from the toilet?
  • What would happen if another person, different from first tester, rushed in and asked for the marshmallow for another child who is very hungry?
  • What would happen in the case of an emergency, such as an alarm being set off and everyone having to “abandon posts” because there is a fire in the building? Will the child take the marshmallow or leave it on the plate?
  • What if halfway through the waiting time , some other person rushes in and takes the marshmallow from the child?
  • What if another person tries to bribe the child with a replacement (chocolate) for a marshmallow?
  • What if another person tries to bribe the child with a promise that contradicts the original promise, saying “if you eat that marshmallow now I will give you two or three more?”
  • What if the same tester, after the waiting time, goes in but does not fulfil the promise, and also takes the marshmallow the child had all that time in front of him?
  • And at the end, how would any of the previous scenarios impact subsequent tests with the same child?

You have probably already guessed where I am heading with all these questions: the first experiment relies solely on strictly predefined conditions.

The problematic word is “promise,” which, according Merriam-Webster dictionary is “a statement telling someone that you will definitely do something or that something will definitely happen in the future”.

When you are working on something, for instance digging a hole, according to the rules of reality after some time you should have a hole. So, the expectation there is that removing dirt layer by layer will create a round hollow space, and that is the reality of it, so if you put your effort into the task of digging a hole, eventually a hole will appear.

On the other hand, if you meet someone who promises he will dig a hole instead of you, there is always some uncertainty whether at the end of the expected time you will get what you need. It is not just the case that this person can be unreliable, but also that the environment can impact this person in multiple ways so this person will not finish the promised task.

Also, a difference between an expectation when you do something on your own and when you are expecting something from someone else is feedback. When you are doing something on your own, you have thousands of pieces of feedback information you may not be aware of, but you will not be disappointed because you accurately know what has gone wrong. If you had a phone call during digging or soil eroded, at every moment you will know. In contrast, when expecting something from someone else, that information is almost always delayed.

In order to be successful, we have to learn certain skills. Also, the expression of these skills will be determined by how accurately we’ve judged the situation and the people around us. Additionally, delayed gratification is not a simple skill for which we can rely on what someone can learn on their own, as what they have learned can give a wrong image.

Above said, is only half of the story: our environment and events in the environment will also have a huge impact on these skills. In order to have a greater rate of success in society and avoid issues of uncertainty, we have to change the environment as well.

The environment has to become more reliable.

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