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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