The Real Lesson of the Marshmallow Test - Creation.begins

The Real Lesson of the Marshmallow Test

meditator in shadow
Being Who You Really Are
4 August 2022
Blurring the lines
5 November 2022
meditator in shadow
Being Who You Really Are
4 August 2022
Blurring the lines
5 November 2022

The Real Lesson of the Marshmallow Test6 min read

I assume you’ve come across the Marshmallow Test at some point in your life. It’s a classic psychological experiment that has long been used to measure our ability to delay gratification, touted as an exercise in self-discipline. It was first conducted in the 1960s and involves presenting a child with a marshmallow and offering a choice: eat the marshmallow now, or wait and receive two marshmallows later.

It has been adapted and presented in a few ways but the gist is the same. It is a widely-used measure of self-control and to what level subjects can override or manage their impulsivity. The subjects are generally children but variations of the Marshmallow Test have been applied to adults and non-human animals, as well. Those subjects who wait until they are allowed to have the marshmallow are seen as having greater self-control by being able to delay their gratification.

However, I propose that a closer look at this test shows that it is less about self-control and more about obedience to authority.

Bottle of marshmallows, next to cups of sweets and a row of cookies on a counter

photo by Delfi de la Rua

A Different Perspective

What the test is really doing is checking whether the subject is willing to listen to instruction and, if so, they will be rewarded for it. Rather than measuring self-control, this test is more accurately assessing the subject’s willingness to obey authority figures and follow rules in exchange for rewards. In other words, people may be more motivated by the promise of a second marshmallow by the supplier of the marshmallows than by an inherent ability to resist temptation. This shifts the focus from individual willpower to the power dynamics at play in the test.

I watched a delightful short in which somebody tried this test on their doggie. They put a treat on the table, instructed the dog to stay and not eat, and then the owner left the room. The dog bided their time before noshing on the treat. So, technically they failed the test. However, the dog then went over to the treat drawer, still visible in the video, took out another treat and left it on the table before their owner returned. (this isn’t the one I remember but here’s a similar situation:

This behaviour shows advanced intelligence, the ability to not only cognitively understand that the treat was off limits but also how to sneakily have the treat without repercussions. Not to mention the ability to stealthily get at the hoard of treats. In this case, the subject showed a level of self-discipline that would fail them in the standard test. They didn’t obey the instructor and therefore failed the test but successfully got the treats. Which just goes to show that the test isn’t really about gratification but about the instructor being the source of the gratification.

And that’s where we deviate from what the test is about. They’re not teaching the subjects how to satisfy their own needs, instead forcing them to be reliant on an authority figure who decides how they choose to satisfy the needs of the subject, with rules that don’t necessarily benefit the subject.

This perspective raises important questions about empowerment and motivation. Is it more valuable to teach children to obey authority and follow rules, or to empower them to make their own choices and find their own rewards? While obedience and rule-following have their place, fostering intrinsic motivation and self-determination may ultimately lead to greater creativity, resilience, and well-being. Teaching and empowering more people on how to satisfy themselves takes the power and control away from institutions and frees people up to acquire and enjoy their rewards in their own time and whim. And I’m sure we’re well aware that the powers that currently be are not interested in people being free enough to not recognise their authority.

a man with a marshmallow head flings marshmallows towards the camera, while standing on a deck overlooking a sunset river

photo by Daniel Lincoln

Empowerment vs. Rewards

Empowering individuals to find their own “marshmallows,” or rewards, is a more empowering approach to fostering self-control and intrinsic motivation. In the context of the Marshmallow Test, this means encouraging the subjects (in the case of human children and adults vs pets) to make their own choices and find their own reasons for delaying gratification, rather than simply obeying authority or seeking external rewards.

While the traditional test emphasizes the importance of self-control and the ability to delay gratification, it overlooks the role of external authority and the power dynamics at play. Children are being trained to deny themselves until someone else rewards them. That is the promise of capitalism; suffer now for the rewards that will come later. And for many, those rewards never come.

By contrast, empowering individuals to find their own rewards encourages them to develop an internal locus of control and a sense of agency. Instead of relying on external rewards or authority figures, they learn to trust their own judgment and make choices that align with their values and goals. This approach fosters greater self-confidence, creativity, and resilience, and helps individuals develop the tools they need to navigate life’s challenges.

True self-control, then, is not about obedience or compliance, but about empowerment and autonomy. By encouraging individuals to find their own “marshmallows,” we can help them develop the inner strength and motivation they need to make healthier choices and give them more chance at achieving their personal goals. This approach may require more effort and patience than traditional methods of discipline and control, but the long-term benefits for individuals and society are well worth the investment.

Laughing child on a wire bridge, wearing a t-shirt that reads "Future Leader"

photo by Kiana Bosman

Greater Implications

This perspective on the Marshmallow Test has significant implications for parenting, education, and personal development. For parents, it suggests that fostering intrinsic motivation and self-determination may be more effective than relying on external rewards or punishments. This could involve encouraging children to pursue their passions, supporting their interests, and helping them develop a sense of agency and autonomy.

In education, this approach suggests a shift away from traditional, teacher-centered models of instruction toward more student-centered, inquiry-based learning. By empowering students to ask questions, explore their interests, and take ownership of their learning, educators can foster greater engagement and motivation, and help students develop the skills and habits of mind they need to succeed in an ever-changing world. We can already see many younger minded, progressive thinkers heading in this direction with their education.

For individuals seeking personal growth, this perspective on the Marshmallow Test highlights the importance of developing an internal locus of control and a sense of purpose. This might involve setting personal goals, cultivating mindfulness and self-awareness, and seeking opportunities for growth and learning.

Ultimately, the Marshmallow Test is more than just a measure of self-control or delayed gratification. It’s a reminder of the power of empowerment and the potential of intrinsic motivation. By fostering these qualities in ourselves and others, we can create a more engaged, resilient, and creative society. As we nurture our own sense of agency and purpose, we can find the inner strength and motivation to make healthier choices, pursue our dreams with more confidence, and contribute more effectively to a better world.

In a crowd of people, a man faces away from camera wearing a sign that says "Every  day is future".

photo by Markus Spiske

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The Real Lesson of the Marshmallow Test
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