Federal Funding and the Famed Marshmallow Test


Marshmallow test
Evelyn Rose of Brighton, New York takes part in the 2012 version of the classic “Stanford marshmallow experiment.” (Photo: J. Adam Fenster / University of Rochester)

Were a psychologist to win federal funding for an experiment that involved offering 3-year-olds marshmallows, it’s likely that grant would eventually be cited on the floor of the House of Representatives as yet another example of silly and wasteful spending on social science.

But a half century ago – a full decade before Senator William Proxmire debuted his Golden Fleece Award to ‘honor’ spending he had determined was dumb – decisions of funding focused more on what could be learned from research, and less on the collateral used to learn. And so basic experiments on self-control, delayed gratification and how those qualities play out in life were allowed to proceed with help from the U.S. government, specifically the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health.

Today, the researchers who sought out that investment – Walter Mischel, Philip Peake and Yuichi Shoda – were honored with Golden Goose Awards. The Golden Goose, now in its fourth year, identifies basic research that sounded silly (or could be construed to sound silly) when it debuted, but which pays off many times the initial dollars dropped in advances for mankind. The award was founded by members of both major American political parties and an a coalition of business, university, and scientific organizations specifically to redress the grandstanding (and anti-science votes) seen in Washington.

In the case of the missing marshmallow, Walter Mischel (now at Columbia University) initially studied decision-making and stereotypes of children in Trinidad, a research experience that drove him to want to study how we develop self-control. Back in the United States, Mischel received money from the NIH – he’d once been told he would be better off asking a candy company to fund the research – to work with preschools at Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School, The preschoolers, one at a time, would join Mischel in the “Surprise Room,” where he would give them a choice: “Get one little treat now, or two if you can wait for me to come back.”

You may have seen videos of this now classic and oft-replicated experiment plays out as the children are left alone to face –and at times devour — their squishy demons. Some kids stare intently at their treat, while others sing songs, play with their toes, turn their backs, or invent elaborate imaginative scenarios and monologues—anything to distract themselves. And, of course, some simply cannot resist.

While these experiments from 50 years ago opened a window into the cognitive skills and strategies that enable self-control, and revealed that they could be taught and learned more easily than usually assumed. But it wasn’t until the late 1970s, with the help of Philip Peake, then Mischel’s graduate student at Stanford (now a professor at Smith College), that the unexpected power of the “marshmallow test” would become apparent – what happened with those young test subjects and their varying degrees of willpower as they grew up. While working to organize and digitize the paper archives of the early delay experiments for a completely different NIH-funded research effort, Peake and Mischel recognized the exciting potential for a follow-up study, since many of these subjects still lived in the Bay Area.

Mischel, Peake and Yuichi Shoda (now a professor at the University of Washington), found, based on reporting by parents and teachers, that children who had been able to wait longer for their extra treat at age 4 (the “high delayers”) tended to show better adjustment in adolescence. They had more social and academic competence, were more able to handle stress adeptly, and persisted better in goal pursuit in the face of frustration. The researchers, joined by many collaborators across an array of disciplines, have followed these children now for more than 30 years. They have documented correlations between the ability to delay and life outcomes as diverse as SAT scores, body-mass index, the frequency of drug abuse, and measurable differences in brain functioning, which are visible thanks to modern functional MRI techniques.

With support from NIH and the NSF, the trio have produced impressive advances in our understanding of the cognitive mechanisms enabling self control. They have found that high delayers employ a set of techniques to help them avoid acting reflexively on their impulses and to delay gratification for greater but later rewards.

Their work showed, or paved the way for others to show, that this predictive power isn’t the same as fate foisted on a 4-year-old, but that children can change: those who are “low delayers” can in fact learn to be “high delayers,” and gain the life benefits that self-control imparts.

This work continues to generate new questions at the intersections of behavioral science, neuroscience, and genetics. Today, Shoda is looking at how people can benefit from an awareness of the kinds of situations in which they excel at self-control and those in which they are most vulnerable to self-control failure. Peake is examining the prospects of training preschoolers in effective strategies for waiting and working for delayed outcomes. Mischel and others are working with organizations like the KIPP charter schools to incorporate successful delay and self-control techniques into their curricula.

Golden Goose Award logo“Who knew that marshmallows could lead to such important discoveries?” said Rep. Jim Cooper, a Democrat from Tennessee, who first proposed creating the Golden Goose Award. “Thanks to federal funding of this research, we know a lot more about how kids’ behavior affects their adult behavior. As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.”

Across the aisle, Republican Congressman Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania observed that “the ‘Marshmallow Test’ provides another concrete example of how small, seemingly inconsequential scientific studies can provide important insights into nature, medicine, and human behavior.

“One of the greatest benefits we can achieve through scientific research is greater knowledge of what makes us act the way we do.”

More Golden Geese will be announced throughout 2015, with all awardees receiving their honors in Washington, D.C. on September 17.

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This report includes material drawn from a Golden Goose press release.


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