The Marshmallow Test – They Got It All Wrong

Have you ever heard of the marshmallow test? If not, let me start by saying that this is a famous experiment. Allegedly, the experiment aimed to identify the ability of becoming successful in small kids. In short, four year old kids were given a marshmallow, they were put in an isolated room and they were told they’re going to get another marshmallow in a few minutes IF they won’t eat the first one. But a movie is worth a thousand words:

After a few years, the kids were evaluated and researchers found out that the kids who waited for the second marshmallow were more successful than the kids who didn’t. Out of this experiment, a concept called “delayed gratification” (or deferred gratification, according to Wikipedia) emerged. According to this concept, people who are able to delay gratification for longer periods of time are more likely to become successful in life.

While I do agree to some extent with this concept, I don’t really see how the marshmallow test supports this. I gave it a lot of thought in the last few weeks, and, to be honest, I don’t think the marshmallow experiment is about delayed gratification. I think they got it all wrong.

The Decision

First of all, the test took for granted that the kids would really want the second marshmallow. Like this was something that every kid in the world would do. Something compulsory. Well, I don’t think all the kids are wanting 2 marshmallows in a chunk. They may crave one marshmallow and just won’t care about the second one.

Kids have the ability to decide. If they decide they would really want the second one, then the experiment will challenge their ability to delay gratification. Without this decision, the test is not clear. So, by just implying the kids are all wanting 2 marshmallows, the test is becoming a little blurry to me.

The Promise

Let’s say part of the kids agreed to want the second marshmallow. Now, they got a promise that if they follow a certain path, they will get it. This promise is in fact a prediction. The future was described in a certain way. I think we’re talking about the ability to see things that aren’t there yet.

Last time I checked, this was called vision. The capacity to create the future out of nothing. The kids were promised something that wasn’t there and I think this is amazing: those kids were actually seeing the second marshmallow in their heads. They pictured it before it was manifested.

The Trust

And finally, they had absolute trust that the promise will become true. Trust is fundamental in this experiment. If they wouldn’t trust the promise, they will never waited for the second marshmallow to come. Without believing the fact that the second marshmallow will manifest, they wouldn’t wait.

I think the test would have yelled completely different results if they would have repeat it several times and every other time the second marshmallow wouldn’t manifest (for whatever reasons: they forgot about it, the world crisis, a dishonest business partner, etc). I think the results would have been surprising, to say the least.

What Makes You Successful?

To the core, the experiment proved something fundamentally true, but the general conclusion was wrong, in my opinion. Delayed gratification has little to do with becoming successful. Delayed gratification is a mild form of asceticism: let’s deprive ourselves from some really good stuff now, because we will get some great stuff later. The only way this could work is by  helping you maintain focus on the target. By staying alert and keep the goal in sight. Nothing more.

But I don’t think this is what really makes you successful. The key to that is something that the experiment revealed, but nobody acknowledged so far. The key to success is the ability to take decision (decide you really want a second marshmallow), to predict the future (picture the second marshmallow in your head, before it’s manifested) and trust the future will give you the second marshmallow (if you follow a certain path). In this specific experiment, the path was a restrictive one: just don’t eat your first marshmallow, and you’ll get a second one. But that doesn’t automatically mean you have to restrain yourself in order to become successful.

I find this experiment really fascinating, once you get over the simple layer of pleasure and gratification. The core of the experiment is: decision, promise and trust.

How many times you decided you want something? How many times you pictured in your head that something before it was manifested? And how many times you trusted your own power that you will get that thing, if you follow a certain path? This is what makes you successful and, with all due respect, this has very little to do with delayed gratification.

If I would believe this theory, that would mean every successful man is a type of ascetic. Keep delaying the gratification until they get more. But in my experience successful people are almost always people who enjoy life more than the average. Most of the time they’ll taste life with much more intensity than everyone.

Now, scroll up and look at the video again. What are you seeing? What is your second marshmallow right now? A house? A relationship? More money? If you decided you really want the second marshmallow, make a promise you will get it. In the near future, you will have that thing. It will manifest. Just keep it in your head. Now, just keep your focus on it. Don’t focus on something else, do whatever you have to in order to manifest your second marshmallow.  Follow your path. Stay there.

In less time than you think, the door will open and somebody will give you the second marshmallow.

44 thoughts on “The Marshmallow Test – They Got It All Wrong”

  1. Dear Dragos,

    I often use this test to try to explain the human environment while, at the same time, I do not use it to point it to a success life while, instead, to point to the consideration that the inability to wait is the way to have problems in the human relations.

    Looking at this point of view, I think that your considerations are a nice study about the test, and you too has been able to work on this argument and wait for think flow to dissipate the fog about the first intuition and to elaborate your thinking. May be this will not make you a success man but you have done it with honesty, against your first, egoistic and personal thinking, and with dignity about your current knowledge.

    Best wishes

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  3. You’re saying that success comes from being able to decide what you want to get, imagine yourself getting it, and then trusting that you will get it if you do XYZ??? If that’s what you’re saying, I couldn’t disagree more. Success comes from not letting distractions pull you away from your goals. Steve Jobs is successful because he didn’t go out drinking every night and he didn’t party with his friends at all hours. He honed his craft. He gained the skills he needed. Airy-fairy hocus-pocus of mere visualization won’t do the trick. Life is all about this kind of decision – giving up the short-term gain for the long-term gain. And yes, we see successful people enjoying life. That’s because they’ve achieved that long-term gain. Those who stick to short-term gain will never achieve as much. (The person who goes out to McDonalds every night because they don’t want to cook will be $300 poorer than the person who cooks. Every month. That’s $3,600 in the year. Gee, I wonder which of them will have the money to enjoy that dream vacation?)

  4. I believe this test is very effective, while other factors such as trust do come in to play. These trait conveniently predict the same outcome. It is likely that a child who has learnt not to trust, and therefore does not wait, lives in an environment where they are unlikey to be raised in such a way that they become a productive individual. Making the experiment still true. I think the person who wrote this should have a think about how the factors they described are essential to delayed gratification. Perhaps, their test subject or child failed the test and they are looking for a better explanation than “Sally” won’t perform as well as the other kids now OR later in life. Really, this research is a bit damning for parents of kids who eat the marshmallow.

  5. Dragos, you sexy beast. Loved the article but I am of the opinion that the marshmellow holds more truth about success then you believe.

    Lets have a fisticuffs fight about it.

    Actually, on second thoughts, you are a lot bigger than me…maybe not.

  6. Hi Dragos,

    I am with Stephen on this one,

    The marshmallow test is irrelevant with the “success meter” of these kids 25 years latter, let’s say. It reveals if these kids are successful at that moment (or coping with their environment as you put it), and it implies that success is when they wait for a second prize. There is no hidden “future-success underlying characteristic” being revealed here, it only shows how these kids were brought up in different environments, some of them more disciplined than others, more educated, more compliant, ambitious, etc.

    And it happens that how you are brought up when you are 4 is most likely to stick around when you will be 40.

    Experiments like this are very intriguing indeed; they bring up an old dilemma:
    Do we really get to chose, or the choice is already predestined?

    • That’s the core question, Doru 🙂

      The exercise of choice is what is at the bottom of this. And at the bottom of almost everything in our lives. The only thing we cannot chose is to avoid death. That’s the part that we’ve been predestined to. We all die.

      Between our birth and our death we do have a choice.

  7. I agree with Steven, thought provoking as always Dragos. I know what my second marshmallows are, I have a list in front of me right now. And I decide I will have all of them.
    .-= Lana-DreamFollowers Blog´s last blog ..Finding Your Life Purpose: The Most Powerful Way to Discover What You Truly Want In Life =-.

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  9. Hi Dragos, I loved the way you have thought about this experiment and related it to life. A lot of people have already said how I feel about the experiment, including yourself. It has it’s uses and was a nice little video but you made the key point in your analysis about what makes success, and that is ‘Making a decision’, the kids made a decision that they wanted a second marshmallow and therein lies the analogy with success in life, making a decision to be successful. Thought provoking as always.
    .-= Steven Aitchison´s last blog ..Are You The Running (Wo)Man? =-.

    • Absolutely, Steven.

      Without a decision to really want something (a second marshmallow or a better life) nothing really happens. 🙂

  10. Do we really want to put any credence into a study (or anything else) based on a marshmallow? It’s one of those “looks good on paper” things with little relevance to the real world. I never did like those gooey little sugar balls. What I did like was the way you analyzed this experiment.
    .-= Jonathan – Advanced Life Skills´s last blog ..Is Life Getting More Difficult? =-.

    • Yes, Jonathan, it’s a spectacular thing, a piece of information very well crafted for the average internet user: a nice YouTube video, a 10 minutes TED presentation and a short Wikipedia article. But behind this is a lot of work and perhaps some of the fundamental information generated by the experiment got lost. As it is right now, the marshmallow test is inconclusive. At least for me.

  11. Hi Dragos, I don’t really agree with your analysis on this one.

    You are way over analyzing whether the children are choosing to want a second marshmallow. Of course they do they are kids. Almost all of the 600 kids waited some period of time before giving in so if they are rationally choosing as you suggest, they must have initially chosen they wanted a second marshmallow. These are 4 year-old children not adults. They wanted two marshmallows, but 2/3 of them couldn’t wait 20 minutes.

    You said this:

    “If I would believe this theory, that would mean every successful man is a type of ascetic.”

    No you wouldn’t because the conclusion you are drawing is not from a perfect correlation. It is just from averages. I don’t see the results but I’m sure there were kids who waited a good amount of time who flopped later in life and the other way around. They don’t know where a lot of these kids are so they don’t even know. They are drawing conclusions based upon the data they from those they can find and those data are averages not a black and white binary conclusion that those who waited succeeded. They are simply saying they are more likely to succeed on average. That’s a long way from saying every successful person is an ascetic.

    Having said all that I don’t necessarily think this marshmallow test was all that great either but I don’t know. I’m not sifting through the original data. It may be totally wrong.

    There probably is some legitimacy to the self-discipline shown by some of the children and their ability to perform in school and on standardized tests. That’s what schools demand after all. Ability to control urges. Success in school does correlate with success in life, but that correlation is far from perfect. So I think there is something to all this, I just don’t know how much or what.

    I think people are over analyzing the marshmallow test and making leaps about what it means. But I think you are doing the same thing. That’s my two cents anyway.
    .-= Stephen – Rat Race Trap´s last blog ..Are Your Thoughts Helpful? =-.

    • As I said earlier, I don’t really buy the test in its entirety. What I tried to challenge was the final conclusion, which seemed to be to take precedence over some simple facts that the kids decided they want the 2nd marshmallow and trust it will come.

      At the end of the video there’s a little girl who eats the first marshmallow without even waiting for the instructions. Not all kids want a second marshmallow just because they’re kids. They are getting a promise and they can exercise their options: either want the 2nd one, either not.

      Other than that, I always agree to disagree 😉

      • “Not all kids want a second marshmallow…”

        How do you know that? Which of the 600 kids did you ask?

        Most of the kids waited at least several minutes before they gave in. My experience around young children must be far different than yours. I would bet you real $$ that if you take 600 4 year-olds and gave them a plate of marshmallows and said eat as many as you want, only a teeny tiny percentage, if any, would eat just one.

        All I’m saying Dragos is that you are making leaps based on far less information than the experimenters.

        I don’t mean this to be a battle, but I think you are way over analyzing this and drawing conclusions about how a 4 year-olds think that is unwarranted by the information you have.

        I read your blog and I think you have great insight and experience. Your articles are usually spot on and I really appreciate them. I just have to disagree with your analysis of this one, but I still love you! 🙂
        .-= Stephen – Rat Race Trap´s last blog ..Are Your Thoughts Helpful? =-.

        • Well, what can I say, I love your blog too and I think that agreeing to disagree is a sign of (at least) a good mental health if not of a strong and healthy personality. So no pun intended and none taken from me.


          There is a but 🙂

          I do think the experiment misses something. It does show relevant information and the conclusion is correct: people who wait for the second marshmallow are usually people who are better coping with their environment. The main reason behind this conclusion is wrong: it’s not “deferring reward” which is to “blame” for this, but rather the ability to create and sustain a predictable model of reality: i.e. trust that the promise will become reality.

          About the decision to want the second marshmallow I can write a book 🙂

          1. Read the comments and you’ll see not every reader of this post will want a second one.

          2. In the video they’re not asked: “do you want a second marshmallow”, but: “here’s a marshmallow, if you don’t eat it, you will get another one”. Leaving room for decision. Their decision.

          3. The little girl in the video is barely waiting for the rules to be spoken, she is just eating her marshmallow on the spot. She decided she want just one and doesn’t care about another one.

          4. My soon-to-be-four daughter is not crazy about sweets at all. Giving her a sweet as a reward never worked. My daughter wouldn’t eat even one out of that plate full of marshmallows. I can bet you real SS on that too 🙂

          The point is even statistically speaking not everybody wants the same thing. And the real point behind the wait is first the decision. They decided to want a second one. Consciously. That’s the first difference.

          And second, they have the trust the marshmallow will come. maybe ther kids who stopped waiting and grabbed the marshmallow lost their trust. You’re right when saying we’re talking on very little substance here 🙂

          As for over analyzing, perhaps 🙂

          • Hi Dragos, I’m not going to drag this out any longer so this will be my last comment.

            This is not about individual exceptions (your daughter) it’s about averages and I’ll bet you on the averages any day. They are repeating the experiments with cookies and I’ve seen the averages on cookies with kids too.

            Secondly to my point about you making unwarranted leaps:

            “The little girl in the video is barely waiting for the rules to be spoken, she is just eating her marshmallow on the spot. She decided she want just one and doesn’t care about another one.”

            You can’t possibly know that she doesn’t care about another one. She may want 10 and simply has no impulse control. She may not be thinking at all. She’s a 4 year-old you know nothing about.

            I realize your blog articles, like mine are just our own opinions. I know we all take some license with our speculations. I’ve been wondering why I reacted so much to this article of yours. I don’t really know why but I know enough to know that to venture an opinion would just be speculation 🙂
            .-= Stephen – Rat Race Trap´s last blog ..Optimizing Your Working Memory – Part I =-.

  12. I want that second marshmallow.

    But I don’t want to “wait” for it. Maybe my trust in the nice lady is broken, my vision is impaired, or my initial decision doesn’t work out – it’s all fine. I’ll adjust.

    I’m trying to do everything in my power to maximize the possibility to get both, right now, with a cherry on top 🙂

    Thanks for this wonderful, thought-provoking post.
    .-= Alex Hudish´s last blog ..[Video] How to Solve All Your Problems =-.

  13. It is interesting that they used this experiment to determine success when they only followed the kids for 18 years. Through college, where following the rules is rewarded. I want to see another follow up when the children turn 50. I will wager that the little girl at the end that started eating the marshmallow before the interviewer even left the room then got up to leave with her plate will be the real victor.

    • Absolutely true, there’s a lot more to life after 18, so the experiment should have been a little longer than that. As for the little girl, maybe. Or maybe not 🙂 We’ll never know, unless she will start a blog tot tell us, right?

  14. Hi dear Dragos, This is so good. I don’t really buy the Marshmallow Test. What about taking into account someone who is very spontaneous and decides that I am going to “live right now” and eat the first marshmallow…and I don’t care if there is another. I see adults who live like this and they are VERY happy and live VERY rewarding lives.

    This whole test is a bit like in grade school (and even high school); the kids who were VERY “good” at sitting still, memorizing all the facts, getting everything done on time, doing exactly as they were told, were seen as the good kids, the smart kids and were approved and rewarded by the teachers and school system, and that’s okay, BUT what about the kids who didn’t fit into ANY of these criteria and later went on to be some of the most brilliant and free thinking adults in history.

    AND what is “successful”? Who is defining success? Does that mean lots of money, a nice home, a fancy car, a good job, fitting “nicely” into society? What is successful? I think that is an individual thing and in it’s healthiest state varies from person to person…and should. We are not all alike nor do we all want and need the same things out of life.

    I find in my culture a vary narrow definition of success.
    This really made me think. I appreciate that.
    Thanks Dragos.
    .-= Robin Easton´s last blog ..Death as an Adviser =-.

    • Robin,

      as always, very thought provoking comments. I think “success” is defined here by the ability to cope better with the environment. Which, as you said, is not always a good indicator of success in its larger perception.

      I don’t really buy the test either, hence my so called rant on it. I do think it proves something, namely that some kids have a better potential at imagining future things (like a 2nd marshmallow) and trust the thing to manifest. From here, there’s a lot of talk to do about success, patience, deferred gratification and predictable models of reality 🙂

  15. You can have that marshmallow sitting in front of you but once you eat it it is gone and you wont get another one!
    Many things in life stem from temptation when you see something right in front of you or know it is waiting for you, people hunger for it more.
    This is where self discipline is the most important thing to know in business and pleasure.
    .-= BunnygotBlog´s last blog ..33 Answers To The Interview With Yourself! Here Goes Dragos! =-.

    • That is one interesting interpretation: it’s gone. You don’t have it anymore. But keeping it in front of you means it’s not in your stomach, so there’s a choice to be made. Consuming happiness now or postponing it for later because we MIGHT not getting more of it?

    • This is one of my biggest curiosities related to this experiment, Steve. The fact that the kids absolutely trusted the marshmallow will come is crucial. It’s the same with entrepreneurs, they say an entrepreneur is the kind of person able to jump in the pool, hoping the water will be there by the time he’ll need it 🙂

  16. Interesting perspective!
    I think this relates quite a lot to the way we were educated: “Work hard now (i.e. “for 20 years”) and you’ll get gratification afterwards (i.e. a house, a family, the possibility to travel and do what you want)”.
    But what is it that we want NOW? And is it really worth the wait?

    Sometimes I’ll just stick with one, single marshmallow, as long as I can enjoy it NOW.

    • Yes, me too. It all comes down to the decision. But as you said, this decision may be influenced by social factors out of our control, like early education.

  17. Haha, I remember hearing about this marshmallow experiment in my Cognitive Psychology class. Never saw this video though…those kids are way TOO adorable. I also found it hilarious how the little blonde-haired boy at the end just shoved the two marshmallows in his mouth – I bet that hindered the relative satisfaction of eating two instead of one. Kids…
    .-= Steven Handel´s last blog ..Seven Ways To Stand Up And Live =-.

    • Yeap, totally 😉 It was quantity over quality. The wait was so long that the kid just wanted to finish all in one turn. Loved it too.

  18. Hi Dragos,

    Most of the times we know which is correct choice;
    while we don’t have the courage, the strength to do it.

    So not any common ability to choose, but the strength power ability.

    • I think I follow the same path with you on this one. But I’m not sure 🙂 Strength and power are good, but making decision is prior to applying strength and power. IMHO.

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  20. Very interesting post. I like what you said about the successful people being the ones who are out and enjoying life now, tasting it.

    I think one of the main keys to success is to be enjoying what we have now, and being grateful for everything, while at the same time realizing that is not all we can have.
    .-= Heather Masson´s last blog ..7 Pretty Cool Reason You Should join my Google Friend Connect Community =-.

    • Being in the “now” is generally a good thing, not only for being successful. But as you pointed, the ability to plan and project is also necessary.

    • Baby steps – I think this is how they call this. I also do baby steps when the second marshmallow is really far away from me, helps me keep my thoughts together and still think that marshmallow will come.

  21. Interesting post. I can be very impatient but am realising patience and persistance are two very important keys to success and am developing these traits more.

    “In less time than you think, the door will open and somebody will give you the second marshmallow” ~ love it!
    .-= Jen´s last blog ..The Power of “No” =-.


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