Marshmallows and IQ

It has been busy at my house, but I read this article which I think may be of interest to parents. Carey Goldberg at the Boston Globe writes about follow-up on the famous Marshmallow Test. Here folllows the first couple of paragraphs describing the test….

"It is a simple test, but has surprising power to predict a child's future. A 4-year-old is left sitting at a table with a marshmallow or other treat on it and given a challenge: Wait to eat it until a grown-up comes back into the room, and you'll get two. If you can't wait that long, you'll get just one.

Some children can wait less than a minute, others last the full 20 minutes. The longer the child can hold back, the better the outlook in later life for everything from SAT scores to social skills to academic achievement, according to classic work by Columbia University psychologist Walter Mischel, who has followed his test subjects from preschool in the late 1960s into their 40s now."

Scientists have identified the anterior prefontal cortex as the area involved in the ability to delay gratification. The Marshmallow Test demonstrates how important it is for that area of the brain to function well. Those SAT scores? 210 points higher for the kids that made it to 20 minutes. Researchers and educators are trying to find ways to enhance that kind of self control. One method to accomplish this is to move motivation away from the "hot" primitive part of the brain (I need to eat now) to the cooler, more rational parts (I get a bigger reward if I wait). Another method is to turn the negative consequences of immediate gratification into a hot area. "If I eat that my hips will look like a hippo's."

Knowing that there are real, intrinsic differences in this ability, means that we can build into our systems aids for people with these issues. Pop-up reminders could be built into E-Bay and QVC sites for those who know they have poor impulse control. A ten minute delay and reconfirmation might work. Sunstein and others have noted that making defaults which push people in the right direction, could help those who have trouble getting started on saving. Teaching self control effectively i.e. delaying gratification, at an early age may mean that your child could be the one who says no to that enticing subprime mortgage 25 years from now.

When the Bell Curve was published, many people/parents focused on I.Q. as the prime determinant for future success. The work of People like Heckman and Mischel serve to confirm what I think we already all know. Self-discipline, motivation, empathy and any number of other skills are at least as important. Once out of academia, the smartest guy seldom runs things. We all se this everyday.


  1. Christi

    Very interesting! We don’t have any marshmallows around…will it work with other treats?

  2. steve

    LOL, yup it should. There have been similar studies done with gifts. Similar results.

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