I Failed the Marshmallow Test

Yep, many times. If this was a test I had in school, I’d probably hide in shame. But this is a test in real life. And this is all a bit more complex. Here is my third post following up on my promise in my earlier post Making Art. I’m musing on wants versus needs.

When I first heard about Walter Mischel, a psychologist at Standford, and his acclaimed test in the 1960s, I wondered how I’d react if I’d taken it as a child. What with claims that children who waited and delayed gratification at their premature age did better later on standardized tests and in careers, I think others wondered too. Then I realized this didn’t matter.

Before I get more into why, let me share a bit of my story. There was a time I must be humble about, as it was not long ago, and I’m in danger of repeating the same mistakes. At this time, I essentially said, “I’ll choose less, thanks.” I favored instant gratification over a later, but greater reward. My future self waves her arms and shouts, “It’s a trap! It’s a trap! You’ll regret this!”

Of course my past self can’t hear, and if she could, she wouldn’t want to. I wore an invisible caption on my t-shirt that said, “carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero”. Notice I’m not giving specifics. I did say I failed many times, and the above can apply to more than one occasion. Say, in relationship limbo or in reaching for dark chocolate late at night for endorphins (because gosh darn it I needed them right then) although it might keep me up all night. I can look back and think how I could have done better. It wasn’t that I had major problems self-regulating.  I just didn’t want to. Not in those moments.

In some cases I was dealing with regular bouts of insomnia. Or because of experience I feared no greater reward would come along, or not anytime soon at least. Sometimes it was both. I was tired, and it’s easier to make bad choices when you’re tired. But you know what? The great thing is it’s possible to rejuvenate. And the test of self-control is one you retake over and over and over again. In reality, I believe I’ve passed the test more often than I’ve failed it! Dear reader, I bet you have too.

If you search online for information on the marshmallow test, you’ll likely run into reports on more recent studies that cast doubt on the original findings. However, Mischel explains how his study is often distorted in the media. You can read a fascinating interview with him full of intelligent rebuttals here: What the Marshmallow Test Really Teaches. And then there’s the Chocolate and Radish experiment by Baumeister, and those who say the theory of ego depletion has been debunked, and chaos over the reproducibility crisis in social psychology.

While debates go on, I’m sure of one thing. Self-control, or willpower, or delayed gratification, can be practiced and become easier. You can always try again. And you can get better at it! You’re probably better in some areas than in others. That’s just fine. I’m going to celebrate my successes over here and think of challenges as things I’ll one day be proud to say I overcame. Think of how much happier you are when you have to work hard to get something anyway. I’d rather fail the marshmallow test one hundred times before succeeding than to succeed at first and assume I’m set for life.

If you’re not familiar with the test, here’s a video with Mischel himself explaining it:



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