In a famous psychology study, young children were given a choice: Eat one marshmallow while the experimenter left the room, or wait an unspecified amount of time for the experimenter to return and receive a second marshmallow. Remarkably, children who waited longer went on to attain higher SAT scores and performed better on other measures compared to their seemingly more impulsive peers. These results were interpreted as suggesting that the ability to delay gratification—or exert willpower—is critical to success in life.
But is willpower really what was being measured? Some researchers have questioned this assumption. Gobbling down the first marshmallow may seem impulsive, but depending on the situation, it may actually be the more rational choice. In a 2012 study, researchers found that children were more likely to delay gratification when they had reason to believe that the experimenter was reliable and trustworthy based on the experimenter’s previous actions. If the goal is to eat as many marshmallows as possible, it makes sense to eat the one in front of you if you’re not sure how long it will be available, or whether the second one will actually show up.
These findings point to an alternative interpretation of the original study results. Some children may have seized the opportunity to eat the first marshmallow right away because they were accustomed to a less reliable environment in general, such as irregular access to food, and therefore were more wary of the experimenter’s promise, not because they lacked the ability to exercise self-control per se. The researchers who conducted the original studies acknowledged these issues, noting that the decision to delay gratification depends on multiple factors, including expectations (p. 985). Although measures were taken to standardize participants' expectations and establish a rapport with the experimenter, variations in expectations and trust based on prior life experiences were still possible. Consistent with this perspective, recent research suggests that the link between delay time on the marshmallow test and adult outcomes doesn’t hold up as well when accounting for factors like family income and home environment.
Findings like these are important not only because they challenge common assumptions about the nature of willpower, but because they suggest a different approach to helping children develop the skills they need to be successful. Willpower is certainly a valuable skill, but if we emphasize willpower without considering the role of the social context, such as home and school environment, we might end up teaching children to engage in behaviors that are not adaptive for them in their current environment. Unless kids have good reason to trust that hard work will pay off and patience will be rewarded, they may be less likely to benefit from lessons in willpower.
The same logic applies for adults, who have also been shown to exercise willpower strategically depending on the situation. For example, one set of studies found that when the timing of a desired future outcome is uncertain, people make rational judgments about whether it makes sense to keep waiting. The longer they have already waited, the longer they expect to wait, which can shift the cost-benefit analysis in favor of throwing in the towel at some point. In the researchers' words, "...waiting is difficult, not just because people have self-control deficiencies, but because calibrating persistence is a genuinely complex problem" (p. 15).
Like the children in the marshmallow study, an adult’s decision to exert willpower can also depend on the extent to which they trust others to keep their promises, treat them fairly, or provide accurate information. If a doctor advises a patient to give up their favorite foods to improve their health, for example, the patient has to decide not only if the benefits are worth the costs, but also whether they trust their doctor's information and believe the benefits will really come.
It is tempting to pass judgment on those who seem to lack willpower, and easy to feel ashamed when we fall short of our own goals, but the truth is often more complicated than a simple lack of ability. Sometimes our hesitation is rooted in a sense of uncertainty about whether a big sacrifice is really worth it. We might have legitimate concerns about the likelihood that a given approach to career advancement, fitness and health, financial gain, or another outcome will have the desired effects, and these concerns might warrant closer examination and additional research. If our enthusiasm is lagging, it may also be worth doing some soul-searching about how much we truly value the outcome in question, relative to other options. For example, a student might decide against investing time and money into a lengthy graduate program if the end goal isn't something they are deeply passionate about.
That said, there are times when we really do want something but convince ourselves we don’t because the process of getting there feels overwhelming. In those cases, willpower-boosting strategies can be especially helpful. The point is not to forget willpower altogether, but to recognize that it is most useful when deployed strategically and wisely based on the information at hand. Sometimes that means hunkering down and holding out for marshmallow number two; other times it just means enjoying that first marshmallow to the fullest.
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Kidd, C., Palmeri, H., & Aslin, R. N. (2013). Rational snacking: Young children’s decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability. Cognition, 126(1), 109–114.
McGuire, J. T., & Kable, J. W. (2013). Rational temporal predictions can underlie apparent failures to delay gratification. Psychological Review, 120(2), 395–410.
Watts, T. W., Duncan, G. J., & Quan, H. (2018). Revisiting the Marshmallow Test: A conceptual replication investigating links between early delay of gratification and later outcomes. Psychological Science, 29(7), 1159–1177.