THE MARSHMALLOW TEST

One of the running gags on TV’s the Simpsons is Homer’s weakness for donuts.  Many people fail to see the brilliance in the Simpsons cartoon.  If you just watch them without thinking about it you are really missing something.  I’m constantly surprised at how many Christian people in particular find the cartoon offensive.  Many fail to see the intended social commentary on everything that is wrong with modern North American culture.  The writers have a knack for skewering many of us through the idiosyncrasies of Homer and Bart; classic underachievers.  In a Halloween episode Homer’s head was turned into a giant donut.  This was problematic for Homer because he couldn’t stop eating it. 

Marge:  “Homer, stop eating your head.”

Homer:  “But I’m so yummy…”

In another episode Homer sold his soul to the Devil for a single donut.  The Devil, by the way, appeared to him at Ned Flanders, Homer’s Christian, goody two shoes neighbour.  That alone was an immensely cleaver touch since the temptations of the Devil rarely appear as terrifying and grotesque, but as safe and appealing.  The devil said to Eve, “You shall not die, but God knows that if you eat the fruit you will be like Him knowing both good and evil.”  The temptation seemed like a good thing coming from an appealing character.  “The Serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field.” 

In the late 60’s Stanford University psychology professor Walter Mischel developed what he called the Marshmallow Test.  He claimed he could predict the future success of 4-year olds based on how they handled his marshmallow test.  He would place them alone in a room with a single marshmallow.  He told them if they wanted, they could just ring a little bell and eat the marshmallow at any time.  However, if they waited for him to return from an errand he would bring with him a second marshmallow and then they would have two to eat.  One third of the 4-year olds ate it immediately.  One third ate sometime within the 20 minutes and one third waited the full 20 minutes and received a second marshmallow.  Here is a video of some children being given the test.  It is quite interesting to watch them anguish over a marshmallow.

The really fascinating part of the experiment was that Mischel continued to track his test subjects into adulthood.  He discovered that those who waited to eat the marshmallow became far more successful as adults.  They did better in school, were more likely to go to college, had better relationships and careers, and scored a remarkable 210 points higher on their SAT’s.  The most impulsive of the group, who ate immediately, were most likely to be bullies or have behavioral problems in school.  They were also more prone to get involved with drugs, less likely to go to college, and struggled in their careers and relationships.  The results were so consistent that Mischel became confident he could predict any child’s future level of success with a single marshmallow.  It’s a bit startling to think that our fate can be determined by a marshmallow.  On the other hand, it makes perfect sense.  Impulsive children grow up to be impulsive adults.  They are always looking for instant gratification.

When I watch people who cannot control their impulses, whether it is drinking, smoking, gambling, pornography, eating, gossip or shopping, I can’t help but think of the marshmallow test.  Billions fail the test everyday and then can’t figure out why life isn’t more satisfying.  They buy the new shoes, car, Ipod, computer or whatever and the next day they feel as empty as they did the day before.  How about you?  Can you pass the marshmallow test?

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37 Responses to THE MARSHMALLOW TEST

  1. Kendra says:

    I would like to hope I would have passed the marshmallow test when I was 4 years old. Now though, at the age of 34, I struggle with impulsive eating. I was brought up being rewarded with food so now I have no idea how to congratulate myself for anything!

  2. SM says:

    When I read the Bible, I see that we are all seeking our own gratification whether it be eating a marshmallow and indulging in anything to satisfy or climbing the ladder to success and loving our own self sufficiency. According to the Bible, all these things lead to destruction if we put our love into them instead of Christ. It is my understanding that through Christ we can conquer anything and so can those kids who ate the marshmallow right away if they trust in Christ. Jesus didn’t come for the righteous but for sinners. What would one of the pharisees have done with that marshmallow? I highly doubt they got to where they were by having no self control in areas that people respect here on earth. Didn’t help their souls much though, did it?

  3. Tamara says:

    Excellent point, SM. I’m all for delayed gratification, but I’d be very suspect of the interpretation of those results. Perhaps the study proves that our society rewards those who’s greed enables them to wait for more. Perhaps our society is set up to reward those who love to please. Maybe some of the kids were really hungry. Who knows. I would think that having ‘failure’ stamped across your head from the age of four, based on a marshmallow, could potentially be damaging to your future success in life.

  4. Mark Hughes says:

    Yes, it is sort of disturbing to think a marshmallow could determine one’s future success. However, remember, when Mischel began the study over 40 years ago he had no idea how the participants would turn out. No one had the word ‘failure’ stamped across their heads.

  5. Tamara says:

    Hmmm. Well, it’s fascinating psychology. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have eaten the marshmallow… I never really cared for them. My own four year old may have actually chosen to sit on the marshmallow, or hide it under the table and pretend to have eaten it, just to be interesting. For absolute sure, he would never have sat on a chair just staring at it for 20 minutes. More likely he would have used it as glue in some kind of fort he was building with the table and chair. I don’t know what that exactly says about him, but I’m so looking forward to seeing the man he becomes.

  6. Sally says:

    On one hand, I am sure I would have failed the test miserably if my mother was administrating the test as sweets were a form of a reward for gratifying us and to also manipulate us to do what she wanted or needed us to do. Both her and my Dad were so busy running their business, they had no time for proper child rearing. It was all they could do to get food on the table to feed us four kids.
    Now if Dad was administrating the test I would not have eaten the marshmellow as he instilled such fear in us that we would not have gone against his perceived desire to wait. Now as an adult, I can see where mixed messages have played a big role in my life. The greatest thing is that Jesus has brought so much balance to my thinking and has taught me so much self-control. And for all those kids who ate the marshmellow God is your Redeemer! There is hope for you!

  7. Tamara says:

    Yes, I guess this is my issue with the way you have phrased this particular blog. If the point is that we need to master our impulses, then, ‘yes, amen and amen’. If the point is that, as you put it, “our fate can be determined by a marshmallow”, then I would have to challenge that. Firstly, I don’t believe in ‘fate’. Secondly, a four year old preferring to be satisfied with one marshmallow now, rather than cramming their face with two marshmallows later, is hardly a repentance issue. It certainly doesn’t seem to warrant red flagging them for a life of under achieving, credit card abuse, grand larceny and divorce. It’s a bit like having a squirrel knock you on the head to see whether or not you’re a ‘bad egg’.

    The Christian life is about redemption, resurrection, rebirth. It is about being born again of Spirit, not of flesh. It is about hope, freedom from the power of sin, freedom to change, having a Divine purpose and a plan for your life. Many people have very painful struggles with impulse control, and there is no doubt that they and those who love them often reap painful consequences of that in their lives. The things I don’t want to do, I do. The things I want to do, I don’t do. Who will free me?? This is why we have a Saviour. It just seems to me to be awfully fatalistic to think that your future is set before you’ve even mastered the use of the toilet.

  8. Mark Hughes says:

    This post is all about the fact that as adults many of us still lack self-discipline. Not about our fates from childhood. Although our tendencies probably do go back to when we were 4 years old, it does not mean we were destined to failure. Mischel’s research was about averages not absolutes. Some of the wrold’s most successful people would have eaten the marshmallow in the first 2 seconds. Besides, as children of God, every one of us is now destined for greatness.

  9. Evelyn Bennett says:

    If I took the marshmallow I would have failed miserably.

    At 5 years old I could not be patient enough to wait to get to the car so I ran across the street and got hit by a car.

    At 9 years old I was disciplined to the point I did not need to be told to bathe before bed etc.

    As far as I can remember I always liked school does that count as success?

    Interesting topic Pastor Mark

  10. Karen says:

    Well…I haven’t let my family watch the Simpson’s for years. Not because I’m too spiritual, but my “monkey see–monkey do” 10 year old loves Bart and thinks he is cool. My son constantly comes up with his own ideas to give me gray hair and I really don’t need him running around acting like Bart! I do admit though…he is creative!
    We are not a disciplined society. I think to the point that we don’t truly know what discipline is.
    My kids were always want, want, wanting something. When their youth group went to work at a homeless shelter, their attitude changed almost instantly. Seeing people that have less and that are trusting in God to provide for them was huge for my teenagers. They think ahead before they buy things (most of the time) and they are more willing to give to others. It’s amazing how God can turn somebody’s perspective around.

  11. Christie Braun says:

    Temptation.
    What I am learning about temptation is that I need to keep in mind the intelligence of Satan.

  12. Sally says:

    Thanks Pastor Mark for your statement that as children of God we are destined for greatness! That is so encouraging! We all have a hope and a future and aiming for greatness is a worthy goal but most of all to have the Lord say to us “well done my faithful servant” will be the most endearing words of all. So let us all run our race to win this prize!

  13. Betty says:

    Being impatient, has a good and bad side to it.
    Growing up in a family, with not to much patience, helps us to get done more, in a day and helped us to always be in time for church or other functions, when we were late, then we failed.
    In some area’s you make better choices, when you have more patience.

  14. mark says:

    I am just sitting here waiting for temptation to pass, or do i look at the glass as half full or half empty action is key here.Some times the devil temps me in alot of ways andI either run from it or stick the word of god in his face.Lets face the devil as a group(church) and with jesus we or the temptaion will leave.

  15. Victoria says:

    For the last comment…
    mark; Release your fear of failure, and think of something entirely different, and you will feel the devil flee! (and the temptation he carries for you)

    I’ve done it! This works!
    I have been to the point where I have been scared stiff, and I took a deep cleansing breath, focused on our Gods love, that lives in our hearts , and IMMEDIATELY a great wave of relief and peace entered my body. The devil does not understand love, he is confused and feels weakened by it. So he runs out of your world back into his own.
    Yes there is power in prayer, but don’t forget to pray for others needs rather than our own.

  16. Kendra says:

    I hope you have a new blog soon. Your service this past week really made me angry. You essentially told people to pray instead of seek medical attention. Also, you said if you believe you will be cured. What about all the people dying of starvation and cancer?

  17. Mark Hughes says:

    Kendra
    You were not listening very well. I would never tell people not to seek medical attention. The story I told was about my son BEING IN THE HOSPITAL.
    The point I was making was that we need to learn to pray first, instead of as a last desperate act. Secondly, that we must start beleving that God WILL heal, not just that he CAN! The fact that there are sick and suffering people in the world does not change God’s word. We either believe it or we don’t!

  18. Karen says:

    God does heal…sometimes on earth, but all of the time in heaven.

  19. Isaac says:

    That video is awesome! Kids seem to distilll stuff to the very core. Awsome!

  20. Steph says:

    The thought that came to mind when reading this blog was “fast food nation”, not because of the fast foods but the lack of patience, we want everything right now, including gratification. I am not sure what I would have done as a 4 year old and even now I can’t be sure. However as I look around at my own life and those of my loved ones I see impulsive decisions. Whether it is because we want the latest electronic, smoking, drinking, eating, whatever, we have not learned to just wait! Thankfully we have a patient God, can you imagine what life would be if God was impulsive as we? Makes me think…thanks Pastor Mark, for the thought provoking ideas.

  21. Victoria says:

    Pastor Mark,
    I have a big problem with swearing…not turrets, which is a medical condition, but as a product of my environment. MY HUSBAND CURSES ALL THE TIME.
    As you might know, when you spend a lot of time with someone, you begin to emulate them . Basic psychology. I recognize and quickly retract my comments if I take the lords name in vain, but I wish I had a better plan to practice better behavior so I could change this. My kids hear it, and they have no problem not swearing. I know it sounds crass, and it is very upsetting.

  22. Sally Young says:

    Confession is a great way to start on your path to victory over swearing, Victoria. Recognizing the problem is the first step. I would then ask the Lord to deliver me from the spirit of profanity and to cleanse me from anything in me that is unholy. I would also ask Him place a guard over my mouth so that I would not let anything profane come out of my mouth. God is a Mighty deliverer and He will set you free!

  23. Victoria says:

    Thank you so much for the advice Sally. I need to spend time with someone like you, because my TRUE Christian associates, are far and few between. I wonder if there is a retreat that is offered somewhere, where I could learn more, have a break from everyone and everything that is literally consuming me. I think someone should organize, a back to nature, Christian get away. I could benefit from that spiritually. I need some spiritual growth.

  24. Ena Whiteland says:

    Really enjoyed your sermon on fearing God this morning on CBC…

    In a recent mini-church meeting the leader and some others disagreed with me when I said that we are to fear God.. they said the word “fear” should be “respect”….when you said that reverence was not the same as fear, I felt as if the Holy Spirit was speaking to me through you..

    I will share this when I return home..(.Bahamas)
    God bless and continue to spread the word of God.

  25. Decieved by neighbor says:

    I met someone who moved in next door to me who I think, has pretended to be my friend. I say “has” because she has recently been moody and cold towards me. After many mornings of coffees and sharing personal information about our lives and our emotional struggles, running over to each others house on a whim, she and I would borrow things from each other, and I would always return the same thing I borrowed within a day or two. Tonight she announces that she is getting annoyed at the constant borrowing of things: I asked for 2 tablespoons of chili powder! (may I explain to you that today I brought up 2 pints of strawberries, and 1 pint of blue berries as a gift because she has a 2 yr old that enjoys them. She moved in, in May, We became good friends quickly as we are the same age.
    I am taking medication as several people I have trusted have betrayed me,

    My own father sold me to his rich friend at age 12, so he could have sex with a virgin-child,while visiting Ohio . We were there for a classic car conference, I went along for fun. I was drugged with GHB during dinner, barely made it back to our hotel room and became pregnant, and was taken to a clinic to wake up in the middle of an abortion procedure.
    Needless to say, I have a difficult time trusting others. And that isn’t the half of it-you wouldn’t believe any of it if I continued on.
    She claims to be Christian, and I don’t see her go to church hardly at all.
    She tried to convince me that I shouldn’t be going to a church with a woman pastor, and this bothers me because I love my church, and I am finally going to marry the man I should….the father of my 3 children, with people (new Christian friends) who love our family unit..
    I think she is being untruthful about saying we have so much in common, and I am starting to believe that she had ulterior motives. Like maybe she is an informant of some sort. Am I crazy?
    I am so hurt.
    We have 3 kids and my husband pays for all of us-including me staying at home so I can empower and educate my family. You can’t put a price on that, and I save the family a lot of money. She seems to be focused on money a lot, but doesn’t seem to curb her spending.She freely buys groceries for every meal every day. I plan for a 2 week stint!
    This behavior does not match her words, which makes me think something else is going on.
    So tonight when she told me she was annoyed with the borrowing , I put on my most happy voice, and told her that was no problem, I would never borrow anything from her again,and then I let her go. I am in shock. This is out of the blue, and her lack of respect for our privacy is ridiculous, as she shows up at 7 am with her son some mornings without calling first.
    She is also on medication for depression, and now I seem to think the whole thing we had in common was just the fact that we are sad inside.
    How can I move forward with this new hurt, draw the circle tighter around my family, and deal with the probable tension that I will have to endure,as my new best friend, just turned into a narc?
    I feel used, and violated, and dropped like a hot potato.Will someone out there give me verse to comfort my deceived heart?

  26. Victoria says:

    Hey Pastor Mark, I think you would like this Christian Blog:
    http://www.lookupfellowship.com/
    He’s into bible prophecy and conspiritory topics, you must check it out!

  27. Victoria says:

    Hey pastor Mark, this is NEW that there is ANOTHER Victoria?…..(I am just checking your blog to see who has written in, Haven’t heard from “Steve” in awhile..)
    What a coincidence.

    Because I don’t read any other Christian blog as you are my king.
    So I will call myself Victoria Nicol on this site to anyone that wants to direct commentary to me, like the REAL friends I have made, Tamara,Steve, and Evelyn, and yourself, of course.
    I also missed the show on Sunday as I could not go to church on Sunday…when did the time change from 11;30 to 11;00 am?
    I am waiting for Augusts blog topic!
    When will you submit it?

  28. Victoria Nicol says:

    Comme ca!
    Like this!

  29. Sally Young says:

    Comments to deceived by neighbour. It sounds like you have had a lot of a hurt in your life and yes it is difficult to trust again, but not impossible. Believe it or not most people have had a lot of bad things happen to them but when Jesus becomes part of their life He restores to us what the enemy has stolen. And He even makes it so that we can see people through His eyes of love; and we can allow ourselves to be vulnerable once again. In time we can learn to trust too. It is not easy fix and it does take time to renew our minds.
    Jesus teaches us how to forgive and once we forgive others who have hurt us He begins a restoration process in our lives. We become free from that person who had a hold on us though their acts of abuse against us.Jesus said we must forgive. It is not an option,it is not a feeling, it is a decision.We decide to forgive those persons who have failed, hurt and abused us. See Mathew 6:14 & 15 and Matthew 18:21 & 22.
    I encourage you to forgive your neighbour and ask the Lord for wisdom on how to relate to her. He will show you ways that will surprise you.
    We will always have people in our lives who will fail us and not meet up to our expectations but when we know that our worth is not what others think we are but who God says we are; we are able to handle most trying relationships.

  30. todd says:

    Dear Deceived. That is a sad story. I feel for you. I don’t know a verse for you but I would like to offer this. Your “friend” is troubled. Don’t feel the need to internalize everything that happens around you – or you WILL go crazy. You’re not responsible for reconciling to accomodate others actions. I’m sure we’ve all come across people like this and it is hurtful at first but you’ll get over it fast enough – as long as you understand that it has nothing to do with you. You deserve better friends than that and they will come into your life now. All the best to you and your family. You can borrow as much chili powder from me as you want – or anything else. God loves you.

  31. Karen says:

    I believe we are all at risk for “instant gratification” in some way. Without such a failing somewhere, somehow, we could each approach perfection, and how silly is that? And then there is the addictive personality which recent studies have revealed is related to, I believe, the low level of one or more of the “feel good” chemicals in the brain. People in this category are physically, emotionally, and psychologically unable to resist certain things that give them that temporary high that other people experience more often, and more regularly in their lives. That lack sets these people up for difficulties throughout their lives.
    Depriving ourselves of gratification is not good either. We need a balance of work and reward, but in moderation as The Bible clearly states. Don’t you think that we all have at least one or more things that we just can’t resist though?
    Those kids who ate the marshmallow right away may eventually, learn to “manage” their impulses, which would be a great achievement. True wisdom and the ability to analyze ourselves honestly seldom comes early in life. Life is school and we’re all in it till we die.

  32. Victoria Nicol says:

    Reminder to deceived : We all need to practice serving others first WITHOUT expectations, and remember that God will provide for us.
    Not every person will candy coat their feelings about things.
    There is a magical place somewhere between leaving yourself vulnerable to others and protecting yourself. I just wish I could pin-point it, so I could help you practice placing your emotional self there.
    There still are good people out there.
    Practice forgiveness.
    I feel the love on this site and it really touches my heart.

  33. Isaac says:

    My heart breaks for you deceived by neighbor. I just prayed for you. God Bless!

  34. Karen says:

    I too have been deceived by a neighbour. Conned actually, into not opposing the person’s daughter’s moving into the other side of the duplex I rent. Promises were made and every one was broken re: noise, blasting music, etc. Drug use was apparent and the daughter even told my son she did “crack”. Because I complained about the noise and lack of respect and consideration, the daughter did malicious and vicious things to try to hurt me. These things, if proven, were criminal acts, but the line is very dicey and difficult to prove outright. I have not been able to move away yet, but intend to do so as soon as I am able. I did not share personal confidences to any degree so that was a good thing. It has always been hard to understand people who do things like this because we, as Christians, have consciences and a set of morals and principles to live by. It troubled me that people like that seemed to have no conscience until one day God led me to read a random Bible verse, Zephaniah 3:5 …; but the unjust knoweth no shame.
    (the unjust have no conscience, therefore no shame in what they do). That’s just the way it is. Hope this helps with the frustrations associated with being deceived by someone you thought you could trust.

  35. Steve says:

    I’ve noticed how God puts annoying people around us or people that just love to reek havoc upon us. Usually, our first response is(at least mine is) God let me dispatch this person with a holy dropkick. But we as Christians don’t have power when we hate other people. There was this old guy down the street who was usually really nice to me and my wife. I was walking with him one day and he told me how his kids don’t talk to him and he was just fine with it. I told him as long as I have Christ I’d be ok even if everyone else leaves. He looked flustered and muttered something as he walked away. After this he was making it his mission in life to irritate me. He would make annoying comments about everything every time I saw him. I was annoyed and I think he thought that was the last he’d see of me. But I forgave him. I didn’t take it personal. And I was nice to him and I felt the Spirit of God give me love for him. This happened so God could show him God loves him and sees through his BS. He has since asked my wife to say a prayer for him and is once again being a very nice guy. Forgiveness is a giant weapon in a Christians hand. And our pride is worth nothing to our God. He cares more about those people who are offending us than He does about our pride.

  36. Decieved by neighbor says:

    I have learned some very valuable lessons:
    Don’t internalize everything
    Jesus restores to us what the enemy has stolen.
    We must always forgive,it is our duty as a follower of Christ.
    Put on Gods armor and don’t take things personally.
    The unjust knoweth no shame. (I think it may be up to us to help teach these people?)
    There really are some beautiful people contributing to this site.
    I thank you for your input and opinions so much, I feel soooooo relieved to know there are people who have never even met me and they care.
    God Bless, I will say a prayer of blessing for you all.

  37. Bruce says:

    I stumbled across this profound blog as I was looking for info. with regards the RFID chip. Praise Allah for showing me the way.
    I must say, you have many interesting, well documented articles, that have left me reading more and more. You clearly have a way with words.

    I disagree with your useage of the word “failure” in this article though. Most successful people in the world today are the ones that lost everything (the so called failures).
    I believe failing makes people stronger, if we dont make mistakes/fail how do we learn.

    “College”, “Relationships”, “Careers “, Self-discipline are not traits that should be associated with successful human beings.

    For instance: Hitler was a very popular, educated, wealthy, happily married man that never did drugs and in my eyes he was the BIGGEST failure of a human being that ever existed.

    My point being, do you think Hitler would have eating that marshmallow at the age of 4, just food for thought..

    Anyway, really enjoyed your articles.
    Peace on you.
    Kind regards

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