Home Emotional Eating What Can Marshmallows Teach You About Will Power? Not a Damn Thing.

What Can Marshmallows Teach You About Will Power? Not a Damn Thing.

by Erika Nicole Kendall

The marshmallow test is a widely-circulated, super-simple study.

Put a marshmallow in front of a child. Tell them that, if they can last fifteen minutes in the room with the marshmallow without eating it, they’ll get a second one.

Some children succeed, some children fail.

A few years ago, I wrote the following:

The marshmallow test, in all its incarnations, proves something that I believed a long time ago: self-control, the ability to overlook instant gratification and complete the task at hand, the understanding that delayed gratification is, in fact, far sweeter… these things are not innate. They are learned. Many of us learned it at a far younger age than others, but it isn’t genetic… hence the “nature and nurture” argument.


The article specifically calls out the fact that a person’s reactions are colored by (a) their personality and (b) the situation. It was speaking in regards to children, but I think this is particularly important in regards to adults, as well, and in terms of weight management I’d even add a third component: experiences. In other words, habituation. [source]

What I didn’t consider is this: if will power can be learned, then there are also other components of decision making that are learned, too. Like, for instance, a potential fear of scarcity—that second marshmallow never actually coming.

I’ve asked this question on the blog, before.

The point is, if you grew up poor, you learned very quickly how to get what you needed in order to at least feel belly-full. That’s important. But what does it teach you about how to feed yourself? What do you learn about nourishing yourself? Moreover, if the bread is sweet, the stuff you’re putting inside it is sweet, and the goal is to eat as much of it as possible to become belly-full…how quickly does that cycle of habits become instantly gratifying? [source]

Why am I re-hashing all this?

Ultimately, the new study finds limited support for the idea that being able to delay gratification leads to better outcomes. Instead, it suggests that the capacity to hold out for a second marshmallow is shaped in large part by a child’s social and economic background—and, in turn, that that background, not the ability to delay gratification, is what’s behind kids’ long-term success.




This new paper found that among kids whose mothers had a college degree, those who waited for a second marshmallow did no better in the long run—in terms of standardized test scores and mothers’ reports of their children’s behavior—than those who dug right in. Similarly, among kids whose mothers did not have college degrees, those who waited did no better than those who gave in to temptation, once other factors like household income and the child’s home environment at age 3 (evaluated according to a standard research measure that notes, for instance, the number of books that researchers observed in the home and how responsive mothers were to their children in the researchers’ presence) were taken into account. For those kids, self-control alone couldn’t overcome economic and social disadvantages.


The failed replication of the marshmallow test does more than just debunk the earlier notion; it suggests other possible explanations for why poorer kids would be less motivated to wait for that second marshmallow. For them, daily life holds fewer guarantees: There might be food in the pantry today, but there might not be tomorrow, so there is a risk that comes with waiting. And even if their parents promise to buy more of a certain food, sometimes that promise gets broken out of financial necessity. [source]

In other words, some of us truly do grow up learning an inability to wait. That perpetual feeling of scarcity—the idea that there might never be a second marshmallow—perhaps because maybe the money wasn’t consistent enough or maybe there were too many siblings and they’d get to it before you ever could—results in you never learning that it’s okay to wait. Instead, the waiting causes a sense of anxiety that turns into a pull that can only be alleviated by eating that marshmallow.

This matters because it changes the way we tackle the idea of “will power.” Some people grew up learning that indulging now not only alleviates the anxiety that accompanies having very little, but also that when you do indulge, you are rewarded with that feel-good hormone boost that comes with the sugary treat. (And, make no mistake about it, marshmallows are sugar, water, and gelatin, so they’re pure sugar.)

Human behavior exists on a loop, and that loop is approved by our brains based on how the behavior makes us feel. You learn to continue things that feel good, and stop things that feel bad. You don’t repeatedly put your hand in an open fire because it doesn’t feel good to you. You learn to avoid the fire, and that behavior operates on a loop for you—whenever you see fire, you avoid it. The inverse is the same for things you enjoy—you learn that it’s good based on the dopamine it causes to flood your brain, and so you gravitate towards it when those feel-good hormones are low.

Because it’s already clear that poverty causes high levels of anxiety, it’s hard for kids to learn the kind of “will-power” that would allow you to turn down the marshmallow (and, by extension, reject the feelings of anxiety that come with scarcity.)

But, if we target that specifically, we can change the way people make decisions and, by extension, the trajectory of their health.

Photo credit: Flickr / aidanmorgan


You may also like