You are in a room. There is a marshmallow in front of you. An adult says if you don’t eat it, there’ll be more. The adult leaves. What do you do?
This torturous predicament is the famous marshmallow test: an experiment designed by psychologists in the 1960s to gauge how successfully children can control their impulses and delay gratification – and when kids are faced with the same dilemma today, their self-control may surprise you.
That’s what psychologist Stephanie M. Carlson from the University of Minnesota found out when she surveyed over 350 adults about how they thought children today would fare in the marshmallow test, compared to kids back in the 1960s.
It wasn’t even close. Over 70 percent thought today’s kids wouldn’t be able to wait as long as kids 50–60 years ago before succumbing to temptation, and three-quarters of those surveyed said children today would have less self-control.
But that’s not how it played out.
In the classic versions of the test, originally led by psychologist Walter Mischel, then at Stanford University (now Columbia), children aged 3–6 years old would be led into a room, where this iconic, divisive marshmallow would be placed in front of them on a table.
It wasn’t always a marshmallow. Sometimes it might be a pretzel, or a cookie. But the stringent conditions of the Catch 22 were always the same.
After placing the treat in front of the child, researchers instructed them they could have two of the snacks – not just one – if they only waited for the researcher to return to the room.
At this point, the researcher would exit, to monitor proceedings behind a one-way mirror – which makes the whole experiment seem like even more of a shady shakedown of these poor, tiny kids.
But while the setup comes across as humorous, the research was fully serious – and follow-up studies by Mischel and others years later revealed unexpected outcomes correlated to the ability to delay gratification: greater educational performance, healthier weight, and better social coping mechanisms, among others.
(As an aside, it’s worth pointing out a recent, larger study recreating the experiment was not able to replicate this, pointing instead to socioeconomic factors leading to such outcomes, as opposed to the ability to delay gratification.)
But that’s not what Carlson was investigating in her recent study. Together with colleagues – including Mischel – the researchers compared results from the original marshmallow test, as well as repeated experiments conducted in the 1980s and early 2000s.
In defiance of the expectations of the adults polled, children who took part in the experiment in 2000s actually waited an average of 2 minutes longer before giving in than those in the 1960s, and 1 minute longer than those tested in the 1980s.
For whatever reason, it looks like kids are actually able to resist temptation better than ever – despite popular belief suggesting otherwise.
“Although we live in an instant gratification era where everything seems to be available immediately via smartphone or the internet, our study suggests that today’s kids can delay gratification longer than children in the 1960s and 1980s,” Carlson says.
“This finding stands in stark contrast with the assumption by adults that today’s children have less self-control than previous generations.”
The team isn’t exactly sure why this is happening, but hypothesise changes in education and technology usage, together with more public attention on things like executive function skills may have contributed to the finding.
But to know for sure, more research is needed, although it’s certainly refreshing to think today’s kids aren’t letting this sadistic old test get the better of them.
“The marshmallow test cannot determine a child’s future, but it is a reliable indicator of how well kids can reflect on a challenging situation and come up with strategies to achieve their goal,” Carlson told Science News.
“That may portend well for school and social situations.”
The findings are reported in Developmental Psychology.