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The Marshmallow Test


Excerpt from the 1995 Time Magazine cover story on emotional intelligence.
The article begins with a reference to the marshmallow study

Excerpt from an interview with a consultant

Excerpt from an interview with a consultant who considers himself an expert on emotional intelligence.

Q: Why is self-control so important?

A: One of the things that's often talked about in social and emotional learning is the so-called marshmallow test where a bunch of kids, young kids, are put in a room and they're told that if they wait for the examiner to come back they can have more marshmallows than if they don't wait; they can have one right now but if they wait they can have more than one. They can have two, they can have five. That set of studies, which was conducted originally in the 70's, as kids have been followed up for 20 years, it turns out that there are a lot of positive life consequences associated with waiting, in terms of being more likely to be out of jail; in terms of social skills, etc. But one other thing that doesn't get mentioned is that there are SAT score differences of 200 points for kids that passed the marshmallow test and waited. And I just was doing a workshop with teachers, and I was talking about this finding, and I asked them. I said, now how can this be? How can that, how does that make any sense? And they started to tell me. Well, if you're impulsive it means you don't read all the questions on the standardized test carefully. It means you pick the first response instead of reading all the way to the fourth response. It means you don't read the directions carefully. It means that you're maybe skipping questions. It means a whole lot of things in your academic performance, regardless of how absolutely smart you might happen to be. So the link of these skills to achievement testing is very substantial because to pass the test itself requires an array of social and emotional skills that often go unrecognized.

Here was my first comment about this from around 2001:

I am not so sure that the ability to control your impulses is a "skill." It could be more a function of the emotional stability in your home environment and how adequately your emotional needs have been met.

Since then I have thought more about impulse control. Here are two examples, one is a true story, the other is a satire.

The After-school Fight

The Drowning Child

Note: The person interviewed was Maurice Elias.


S. Hein
November 20, 2008
Podgorica, Montenegro

Excerpt from Time Magazine, October 2, 1995

Please note two things in particular about this article. One is that it calls the ability to delay gratification a "master skill". The other is that it says it is a "sign of emotional intelligence."

It turns out that a scientist can see the future by watching four-year-olds interact with a marshmallow. The researcher invites the children, one by one, into a plain room and begins the gentle torment. You can have this marshmallow right now, he says. But if you wait while I run an errand, you can have two marshmallows when I get back. And then he leaves.

Some children grab for the treat the minute he's out the door. Some last a few minutes before they give in. But others are determined to wait. They cover their eyes; they put their heads down; they sing to themselves; they try to play games or even fall asleep. When the researcher returns, he gives these children their hard-earned marshmallows. And then, science waits for them to grow up.

By the time the children reach high school, something remarkable has happened. A survey of the children's parents and teachers found that those who as four-year-olds had the fortitude to hold out for the second marshmallow generally grew up to be better adjusted, more popular, adventurous, confident and dependable teenagers. The children who gave in to temptation early on were more likely to be lonely, easily frustrated and stubborn. They buckled under stress and shied away from challenges. And when some of the students in the two groups took the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the kids who had held out longer scored an average of 210 points higher.

When we think of brilliance we see Einstein, deep-eyed, woolly haired, a thinking machine with skin and mismatched socks. High achievers, we imagine, were wired for greatness from birth. But then you have to wonder why, over time, natural talent seems to ignite in some people and dim in others. This is where the marshmallows come in. It seems that the ability to delay gratification is a master skill, a triumph of the reasoning brain over the impulsive one. It is a sign, in short, of emotional intelligence.

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