Under a Friendly Spell

How friends influence us, for better and for worse, throughout life.

A Problem With The Marshmallow Test?

Willpower is important. But what about the desire to please adults?

A few days ago I was reminiscing with a friend about childhood Halloween experiences.

"I always stretched out my candy," she said. "I would sometimes still have some left when the next year's Halloween came around."

"Ah," I said. "you would have done really well on that Marshmallow Test." The Marshmallow Test, as you likely know, is the famous 1972 Stanford experiment that looked at whether a child could resist a marshmallow (or cookie) in front of them, in exchange for more goodies later. Follow-up studies showed that kids who could control their impulses to eat the treat right away did better on SAT scores later and were also less likely to be addicts.

Since then, the ability to delay gratification has been steadily touted as a key "non-cognitive" skill that determines a child's future success. Paul Tough's excellent new book, How Children Succeed, is the latest to look at how to instill willpower in disadvantaged kids.

There's no question that delaying gratification is correlated with success. A more recent twist on the study found that a reliable environment increases kids' ability to delay gratification. This makes sense: If you don't believe an adult will haul out more marshmallows later, why deny yourself the sure one in front of you?

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But as my friend compared her Halloween candy consumption pattern to that of her husband's--he gobbled his right away, and still has a more impulsive streak than she--I began to wonder if another factor is in play during these types of experiments. Not just an ability to trust authority figures, but a need to please them.

My friend's husband was a big teacher- and parent-pleaser growing up. He was a great student and aced the SATs, too.  So I speculate that though he showed an inability to delay gratification in "natural" candy-eating experiments, he would have done well on the Marshmallow Test, because his parents would have presumably taken him to the experiment, and another adult with authority (the lab assistant or researcher) would have explained the challenge to him.

Could a desire to please parents, teachers, and other authorities have as much of an impact on a child's success as an intrinsic (possibly biological) ability to delay gratification?  I would love to hear what people who know more about these various traits than I do think about my Halloween-inspired speculation...


Friendfluence will be published on Jan. 15th!

Carlin Flora is a journalist in New York City. She was a member of PT's staff from 2004-2011, most recently as Features Editor.

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