Watching a four-year-old take the marshmallow test has all the funny-sad cuteness of watching a kitten that can’t find its way out of a shoebox. The child sits with a marshmallow inches from her face. Most lean in to smell it, touch it, pull their hair, and tug on their faces in evident agony over resisting the temptation to eat it. Except, that is, for the blissful ones who pop it into their mouths.
The marshmallow test, invented by Walter Mischel in the 1960s, has just one rule: if you sit alone for several minutes without eating the marshmallow, you can eat two marshmallows when the experimenter returns. Decades later when Mischel and colleagues caught up with the subjects in their original studies, they found something astonishing: the kids who were better at resisting the treat had better school achievement as teenagers. This early research led to hundreds of studies developing more elaborate measures of self-control, grit, and other “noncognitive skills.
The takeaway from this early research was that self-control plays an important role in life outcomes. The message was certainly not that there was something special about marshmallows that foretold later success and failure. And yet, a new study of the marshmallow test has both scientists and journalists drawing the exact wrong conclusions.
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