Deferred Gratification – The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment

What’s so fascinating about eating a marshmallow? Quite a lot as it turns out. In 1972, Stanford University’s Walter Mischel conducted one of psychology’s classic behavioral experiments on deferred gratification. Deferred gratification refers to an individual’s ability to wait in order to achieve a desired object or outcome.

In the Stanford Marshmallow experiment, Mischel used a group of over 600 children aged 4-6 as his subjects. Each child was asked to sit at a table in a room free of distractions and was given one marshmallow treat on a small plate. The child was then told that he would receive an additional marshmallow if he could refrain from eating the first marshmallow until the experimenter returned (about fifteen to twenty minutes later). A few children ate the marshmallow as soon as the researcher left the room, but of all those who attempted to delay, about 30% were successful in waiting for the full time allotment and earned the second marshmallow.

How did these successful children accomplish the task before them? Mischel, Shoda and Rodriguez (1989) state:

…those who were most successful in sustaining delay seemed to avoid looking at the rewards deliberately, for example, covering their eyes with their hands and resting their heads on their arms. Many children generated their own diversions: they talked quietly to themselves, sang, created games with their hands and feet, and even tried to go to sleep during the waiting time. Their attempts to delay gratification seemed to be facilitated by external conditions or by self-directed efforts to reduce their frustration during the delay period by selectively directing their attention and thoughts away from the rewards. (p. 934-935)

During the first follow up study in 1988, Mischel made some startling discoveries. Children who were able to defer gratification were described by their parents as being more assertive, confident,  and more academically competent than those who were unable to wait for a second marshmallow. In the second follow up study in 1990, the ability to delay gratification correlated with higher SAT scores. Children who could wait for the second marshmallow scored an average of 1262 (out of 1800) on the SAT. Those who ate their marshmallow early had an average score of 1052.

“Those 4-year-old children who were able to delay gratification longer in certain laboratory situations developed into more cognitively and socially competent adolescents, achieving higher scholastic performance, and coping better with frustration and stress” (Mischel, et al., 1989). The experimenters argue that persons requiring instant gratification might suffer from poor impulse control; those who are able to defer gratification show good impulse control, which is necessary for academic success and achievement later on in life.

So are you a loving parent who is concerned about your child’s welfare? Do you want a heads up on what the future has in store? If so, then there is no need for expensive gimmicks and  gadgets. Just hop in your car, go to the nearest supermarket and pick up a big bag of yummy marshmallows.


Mischel, W., Shoda, Y. & Rodriguez, M., L. (1989). Delay of gratification in children. Science, 244 (4907), 933-937.

Enhanced by Zemanta