50-Plus Years of Marshmallow Experiments


By Jennifer Kunze, Ph.D.

Director of Ramp-Up to Readiness


The late Walter Mischel was a researcher who gained fame for his frequently replicated marshmallow tests. These tests, which were initiated more than 50 years ago, were designed to assess children’s ability to delay gratification. The goals of the research were to understand how children develop self-control, and to learn what the implications are for their lives as they grow into adults.


In the original experiment, children were given one marshmallow and told that they could eat it if they desired, but that if they could wait while the researcher left the room, they would be given two marshmallows to eat. From the results of such studies, Dr. Mischel and others found significant connections to how the lives of the children studied turned out over time. They found that those who were able to delay gratification by not eating the initial marshmallow offered had better chances of doing well at school, and of thriving as adolescents and adults.


Importantly, Mischel also determined that children and adults could be taught to self-regulate. Self-regulation involves cognitive skills that can be identified, and as a result, people can learn to gain control of their emotions and temptations, which allows them to take future consequences into consideration.


So, 50 years later, does Walter Mischel’s work still have relevance? Neel Kashkari, who is the President and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, has continued a strong tradition in Minnesota of supporting education, and he is keenly interested in inequities. He recently hosted a conference and invited Dr. Stephanie Carlson, the Director of Research at the Institute of Childhood Development at the University of Minnesota, to speak about her work with marshmallow experiments. In her lecture, called "Lessons from the Marshmallow Test," she explains what has been verified and re-verified about the famous marshmallow test concerning the ability to delay gratification, and its ability to predict outcomes later in life. 


Interestingly, despite what many think, across the decades students have shown increased ability to delay gratification in the marshmallow test! You can watch a video of Dr. Carlson’s explanation here. For those whose preferred learning style is reading you can try this link.


In the University of Minnesota’s Ramp-Up to Readinessprogram students learn about Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow test in an 11thGrade Activity. Why? Going to college means that young people may have to postpone earning money at a job after high school, buying enticing things such as a car, or living like an adult. Because it is still largely true that what you learn is what you earn, going to college—whether it be a trade school, military, apprenticeship, or two or four-year school—remains an excellent investment. Many of our students, privileged or not, need support in developing the self-regulation skills that will make earning a college degree reality. 


In the aforementioned video, Dr. Mischel said he felt hopeful when he learned that students from high poverty and stress situations were being taught self-regulation skills. It makes me feel optimistic, too, and even more determined to help make college a possibility for all.


To learn more about the Ramp-Up program and how it helps students in grades 6 - 12 be ready for postsecondary, click the button below.


About the Author: Jennifer Kunze, Ph.D., is the Director of Ramp-Up to Readiness at the University of Minnesota, and is thoroughly committed to college for all. Her additional professional interests include high quality instruction, professional learning systems, and labor trends. She is also a licensed social studies teacher, and has worked in K-12 settings, leading efforts in curriculum and instruction, mentoring/coaching, alternative compensation, and postsecondary readiness.

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