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Marshmallow test; explained

If you are here for the Marshmallow recipe, sorry to disappoint you. This article has nothing to do with marshmallows.

However, if you are into psychology, you most probably would have heard about this famous test. This test was initiated in the late 1960s where researchers tested 32 kids. They gave each kid a piece of marshmallow and gave them two choices. They could eat it now. Or if they could wait 15 minutes, the researcher would come back with another one and they could have two. Well, as you would expect, some kids gave in to the temptation and ate the marshmallow they had whereas the others kept their cool and waited for the second one.

This simple test became quite the trend in the psychological arena. It was popularized by the Standford psychologist Walter Mischel and many more similar tests were conducted in the late 1970s. Psychologists found that the kids who could resist the temptation often adopted happy thoughts to distract themselves from the marshmallows. But the test was not yet over. The researchers kept tabs on these kids for decades. A group of 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, researchers found that these kids excelled further in their education. These results were largely accepted by the public and were integrated into parenting and life-skill courses to such an extent that people came up with their own interpretations.

Before getting to criticisms, let us take a look at the neuroscience of willpower. Why is it so difficult for us to wait for that second marshmallow? Well, if you are someone who hasn’t had a marshmallow before and haven’t even heard of how delicious it is, it would be quite easy for you to wait for the researcher to come back. However, if marshmallows are your favourite dish in the whole wide world and you haven’t had a good breakfast, it would be quite hard for you to resist the temptation. When you sense something that serves a biological need, some regions of your brain get really active. One such area is the ventral striatum, in which resides the nucleus accumbens. This activation is called reward response. And the stronger the reward response you have to something, the more self-control you need to abstain.

The marshmallow test was believed to be a test of will power. However, recent neurological tests reveal that the marshmallow test was more about impulse control than will power. And the test in itself had a lot of flaws. For example, the researchers disregarded various factors that might have affected the kids’ decision to eat the marshmallow. If the kid didn’t trust the researcher to keep the promise, the kid would eat the marshmallow that he/she already has. Socio-economic factors might also play a role. A kid raised by a poor family would probably try and use the most out of what he/she was offered. But, it is true that the marshmallow tests often correlate with success later in life. But as they say, correlation is not causation. Multiple other factors might be responsible for this relation.

Even with its obvious flaws, the marshmallow test remains to be one of the most famous psychological experiments among the public. And I think we can all agree that a little impulse control could help us succeed one way or another.

If you haven’t seen the marshmallow test yet, here is the youtube link:



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