The marshmallow. It has been used by schools all over the country for years to help with building an edible DNA model, probability problems, or making geometric shapes, but now the marshmallow plays a completely different role in the world of education. It’s called the marshmallow restraint experiment and it is making a statement in classrooms all over the country.
The marshmallow experiment was first conducted by Walter Mischel, a Stanford professor of psychology, in the 1960s with a number of four years olds. He would have a child sit down at a desk with a plate and a marshmallow and tell them that they could either eat the marshmallow at that time, or wait until he returns. If they were to wait, he would give them a second marshmallow.
“What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t will power or self-control… It’s much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it,” said Mischel.
Many children struggled with trying to resist the treat and were only able to last for an average of three minutes. Many tried to distract themselves from the treat by putting their hands over their face or turning around in their chair so that they wouldn’t have to look at the candy. Others would kick the desk, tug or play with their hair or play with the marshmallow. Some kids even when at far as smelling the marshmallow or licking it, but not taking a bite.
“A few kids ate the marshmallow right away,” Mischel, remembers. “Other kids would stare directly at the marshmallow.”
About thirty percent of the children who participated in the experiment, however, successfully waited to eat the marshmallow until the researcher came back, sometimes over 15 minutes later.
Then in 1981, Mischel sent out a questionnaire to all of the parents, teachers, and academic advisers of the children who had participated in the marshmallow experiment, who were all in high school. He questioned them on a number of characteristics, from the child’s ability to plan, organize, and think ahead to their ability to how well they managed to deal emotionally with challenges or problems they faces and how well they get along with their peers. He also requested to see their S.A.T. scores. To Mischel’s surprise, the third of the children who were the quickest to eat the marshmallow during the experiment scored an average of 524 verbal and 528 math. Those children how had self-control and waited to eat their treat scored an average of 610 verbal and 652 math. He also noticed that the children who could not wait seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, in school and at home. They often had trouble paying attention, found it hard to maintain friendships and could not handle stressful situations very well. Other researchers who have looked at this study have also found that those children who could not wait grew up to have a significantly higher body-mass index and were more likely to have had problems with drugs.
With that being said, Mischel’s experiment became an instant success and is still very well-known today. So much so that educators are starting to conduct this experiment in their very own classroom. The experiment is now given to a wide range of students, not just four year olds. Many teachers are using this experiment as a lesson to their students to learn self-control and patience.
One New York City teacher uses the experiment to show his older students how self-control will be needed in a number of different situations throughout their entire lives whether it relates to not going out to play and getting their homework done first, or keeping calm when a future co-worker is making them upset for some reason. I think that we will be seeing this exercise done a lot more in classes all around the country because schools are now responsible for teaching students life lessons, not just educational material such as math or science. So with that being said, hopefully we will start to see more kids being able to resist temptation and wait to eat the marshmallow.