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Your Future in a Marshmallow

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Fate may not be written in the stars, but what if it’s written in our genes? First, Paul Auster raises the specter of "rhyming events," his term for those spooky coincidences that seem more than ordinary mathematical flukes.

Then, a seemingly simple experiment devised by Walter Mischel to test will power: put a kid in a room with a marshmallow, and tell her if she can resist eating it for 15 minutes, she can have 2 marshmallows. It turns out the kids who could wait were much more likely to be successful as adults. Jonah Lehrer helps make sense of the implications.


Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the kids who performed better on the marshmallow test had higher GPAs in high school and went to better colleges. Those elements were not a part of Mischel’s original study. The audio has been adjusted to reflect this fact.


Jonah Lehrer and Walter Mischel

Comments [22]

Cheri from California

I heard this broadcast some time back and have had a chance to experiment with my grandson. Here is my experience: When the child could trust the adult to keep the promise, the child was able to delay gratification. When the adult had a history of not keeping their promise ('you'll get more marshmallows later' and not delivering any marshmallows), the child is unable to delay gratification. I think that at about 4 years old, the child has this figured out. If more adults disappoint the child by not keeping their word, then adults that keep their word, the child find the world unpredictable and acts impulsively. I propose that the children that could not delay gratification and later went on to have more difficult lives, learned early on that life is chaotic and unfair. Children that could delay gratification, learned that there is a benefit to trust the future because their early experiences have been fair. So: Always keep your word to a child no matter how small or insignificant the promise.

Oct. 02 2016 01:37 PM
Catherine from Palo Alto

Couldn't believe you called kids who could wait "good" and kids who couldn't wait "bad." Does that mean if you get a lower test score that you're bad? Wow!

Oct. 01 2016 05:45 PM
Miles Fidelman from Newton, MA

I keep wondering whether the experiment itself was causative. Did putting 4-year olds in the position of having to make a choice have a long term impact? Did the choice they made influence their later development? Did whether or not they found a delaying mechanism, in that artificial situation, impact later development?

Oct. 01 2016 03:57 PM
sue from NJ

I was a kid with no impulse control (now an adult with no impulse control), and I am now a teacher of inner-city kids. If you would like a great example of privilege, it is this experiment. If my students did the things I did as a kid, they would be expelled or serially suspended with no way of recovering. I was "asked to leave" my private school in 7th grade and warmly welcomed to another school. Ultimately, I was accepted to a top college with all of my terrible habits because of my family background. Had I been a minority, I would be working at a grocery store to this day. Just thought I would point this out.

Oct. 01 2016 12:21 PM
Doug from Detroit, MI

Re "rhyming events": I knew someone from Norway who had an uncle who visited the US and stayed at the Waldorf Astoria. Their family name is unusual and so the uncle opened the phone book in his hotel room, finds one person listed, and the name is underlined. When he is back in Norway he tells the story. Turns out that another relative had stayed in the same room, also checked the phone book, and underlined the name.

Feb. 10 2014 09:48 PM
Transforming: ISET0078878 using INT All Users

Jonah Lehrer helps (make up) make sense of the implications.

Feb. 10 2014 12:50 PM
Gregert Johnson from Bradford, New Hampshire

Re: Oreos and delayed gratification. It was rightly pointed out later in the show that correlation is not causation. What was not discussed was the role that the choice of factors plays in framing explanations and identifying "predictive indexes." It's been noted often that poverty has a bearing on how well children develop and succeed in later life. While timing how long it took the little girl to succumb to temptation, did anyone think to ask her if she was hungry?

Feb. 08 2014 03:14 PM
Linda Moore

I was tellimg my husband about this and he started laughing. A coworkers dad must've been listening and had asked him if he would wait for a cold beer for 15 minutes to get 2, or if he'd just take the beer. When he replied that he'd have to drink the 1 immediately he got a disappointed head shake. LOL

Jan. 27 2013 09:02 AM
Juergen from Fair Lawn

An interesting take on the Marshmallow Experiment is presented at

In a nutshell: Privilege is still a fairly good predictor of future success in life, and it is a factor in whether you learn that delaying gratification can be useful - or in whether delaying gratification is in fact the correct strategy.

Jan. 27 2013 12:03 AM
Eric Mauro from Boston MA

If Mischel's study is on delaying gratification, it is fatally flawed. However the study does reveal something very important.

The fatal flaw is that the problem is not the kids, the problem is the marshmallows.

What Mischel has discovered is a group of people who are biologically oriented towards processing carbohydrates in a way that will make them hungry, craving more carbohydrates, and seemingly lazy.

The subjects who fail the test likely have a metabolism that reacts to refined modern carbohydrates by using digestive hormones to lock the energy into their fat cells. This makes it unavailable for powering their minds and bodies. These people could be well-fed and maybe even look fat, but will still be hungry and tired.

Because there is a likely genetic predisposition to this condition, Mischel has identified the families most likely to have the worst time under in the modern carb-centered diet. Their parents will be less successful. The kids themselves will eat the marshmallow. When they get older they will be obese. They will not exercise and if they do, they will get tired earlier or hurt easier because their joints will be inflamed. They will not have the energy to complete school work because the energy from their food is locked in to their fat cells.

The experimenters, doctors and yes radio-labbers are likely to be from the group with the genes to tolerate these foods and so it looks like a problem of willpower. It's not a psychological problem, a problem of upbringing or a problem of willpower. If you respond to your diet this way, there is nothing you can do as a matter of will to keep from eating more if the wrong foods are in front of you.

Jan. 26 2013 04:04 PM
Kimi from Hartford, CT

I wish you had also interviewed a rehab therapist or a psychoeducational specialist who works with severely emotionally/behaviorally disturbed children. Effective milieu therapists know that the key to delayed gratification is teaching impulse control. Developing the ability to wait is a part of many treatment plans. Music therapy is one treatment modality that can be particularly effective in helping children develop this learnable skill. The special education department at the University of Georgia has done a lot of work on this.

I find it odd that the first interpretation of the marshmallow study results would be that the ability to wait might be hard-wired. Simple observation of everyday parent-child interactions makes it clear that some parents never teach delayed gratification, but instead rush to meet their children's demands. Some parents will do anything to get a child to stop whining or crying. After working with over 1100 severely emotionally disturbed children, I've found that kids learn quickly to do whatever it takes in reality to get what they want. That includes waiting and speaking in a reasonable tone.

Jan. 25 2013 11:29 PM
Alden from Denver Colorado

Did I miss the audio while listening online here where you hear one of the kids talking while waiting for the cookie/marshmellow reward, or is this segment a different version than what was broadcast on CPR? The voice of the kid had so much character and depth, I was hoping to hear it again in while re-listening...

Jan. 21 2013 06:07 AM

My only issue with this, is that the kids may all be four, but they are not all the same age. Some may be four turning five, and others may have just turned four. It sounds like there are quite a few variables.

Dec. 12 2011 02:00 PM
Rachel Lee from Portland Oregon

I was tickled when I heard the idea of "rhyming events." Because, if they are so, than that makes life... poetry.

Feb. 24 2011 12:07 AM
Alex J from Oregon

It's clear that life is some variable confluence of "fate" and will (which itself is influenced by other forces). And will power isn't the ONLY psychological factor that affects outcomes (and also the diversity that can enrich a society). Certainly an interesting peek into an age-old topic.

Feb. 19 2011 04:01 PM
Ryan from Fort Wayne, Indiana

It is reported that self-control can be taught through delay of gratification.

Feb. 16 2011 01:17 PM
Omar Bouderdaben from Houston, TX.

I wonder, as some hinted, what were the environment of these children. I am willing to bet children whose parents taught their children to behave and to be patients are the ones who waited longer to take that marshmallow... I also believe that this self control is not hard-wired is the study trying to imply. It does say, however, that this is an indication of the child may have issues in the future. If the parents now this, they may be able to turn arround that...

Dec. 12 2010 02:51 PM
Nicole from Boston

I don't think it's right to claim that one is "screwed" for having a lower-paying job and/or IQ.

Perhaps part of the problem with today's society is we think everyone needs to have a professional job, thus there are negative connotations with any other occupation (e.g. garbage men, mailmen, maids, food service, etc.).

Nov. 24 2010 12:35 PM
Miles West from Ferndale, Michigan

The rest of the study should be focused on how they are raised prior that. Kids are smart and know how to get what they want and have strategies to acheive. My theory is that how a child is raised determines how well a child progresses through the cognitive phases prior to 14. If parents give in to their kids demands easily a child doesn't learn coping strategies. I believe it is likely that this is just hitting home the importance of good parenting. I feel this is more important than good education.

Nov. 15 2010 10:41 PM
April from New York

Re the hotel room shared by two generations over a wide time span, (and many other important things tpeople don't talk about because they don't want to be considered insane; one thing I like about yr program), check out C. G. Jung's concept of Synchronicity. i.e. meaningful coincidence. And read his interior memoir, "Memories, Dreams, Reflections", great book that deals with much of what you did on this program and much much more and more profoundly. No, he wasn't anti-semitic, wrote and drew The Red Book, shown at the Rubin Museum. He saw Europe awash in a sea of blood predicting the two world wars, for example.

And according to Buddhism there is no
inherently existent "self". We and all things coexist interdependently. ("dependent arising"), so the idea that ten thousand things could influence a person, is an under estimation. Everything affects everything else. In Hinduism, Indra's Net, in which all reflects all, as in drops of rain in an infinite spider web. Similar or same things happen simultaneously w/o temporal spatial connection. As Va. Woolf, Joyce, and Einstein coming up with similar ideas simultaneously. The upshot: Things are MUCH weirder than we think. That's a main part of your beat and why I love your program!

April In Manhattan

Nov. 14 2010 05:39 PM
Jennifer Najjar from Georgia

Disappointed that it was given as fact that Wayne Gretzky at 2 years old loved ice hockey because he cried at the end of games he'd been watching on evening TV. As a mother, I would bet that more likely he cried at the end of the evening program because he knew that now he had to go to bed!

Oct. 31 2010 10:30 PM
HunterJE from Washington state

Re: Auster's comments at the beginning: Didn't we already go over this with the Stochasticity episode? The F over middle C and apartment stories seem really meaningful until you consider all the coincidences that fail to happen throughout our lives. Auster's a fantastic writer, but perhaps he should stick to fiction.

Oct. 22 2010 06:40 PM

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