On Becoming Babywise: The Stanford Marshmallow Study

Every heard of a guy named Walter Mischel? If you are like me, you probably never heard of him. Well, he is a somewhat famous psychologist who currently works at the University of Columbia. Earlier in his career though he worked at Stanford, and this is where he first made a name for himself – at least in the world of academic psychology.

He designed a simple little test, which subsequently became know as the Marshmallow Test and it went something like this…

The Design

He recruited about (400) 4-year old kids. He placed a marshmallow on a plate right in front of them. Then he told them that he needed to go and run an errand, which would take about 15-20 minutes. He went on to tell them that if they could wait to eat the marshmallow until he got back, then they could have a second marshmallow. Altenatively, they could just eat the marshmallow right away, but there would be no second marshmallow when he got back.

The Results

A full 1/3 of the kids grabbed the marshmallow almost right away. Another 1/3 were able to wait a short time, but the marshmallow was long gone by the time Dr. Mischel returned. The final 1/3 were able to wait for him to return and received the 2nd marshmallow. This, Dr. Mischel concluded, was a group of kids that was able to delay gratification and exercise self-control.

Follow Up

Dr. Mischel went on to follow these 400 kids over the course of their childhood. What he found was fascinating. Those kids that were able to delay gratification seemed to have more success as measured by Dr. Mischel. They were more popular, adventurous, confident, and dependable. Those who were unable to control their impulsivity were more likely to be lonely, easily frustrated, and stubborn. They had difficulty dealing with stress and shied away from challenges. More, when comparing SAT scores, the 1/3 that had embraced delayed gratification scored on average 206 points higher.


This study was summed up by Dr. Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence, where he concluded, “It seems that the ability to delay gratification is a master skill, a triumph of the reasoning brain over the impulsive one.” He went on to write an article about the science behind it. It turns out that there is a specific area of the brain, the prefontal cortex, that controls impulsivity. This is one of the last anatomic pathways to mature in the brain. The real question is… What can we as parents do to foster proper maturation of this area of the brain?

On Becoming Babywise… Giving your Child the Skill of Delayed Gratification?

I am not sure anyone can answer this question with any certainty. However, the authors of Babywise made an interesting observation in kids that were raised with a PDF approach. They took 25 kids that had been raised by parents who adopted a PDF approach: All 25 children waited for the second marshmallow. Is this truly the product of the PDF method or something else? It is hard to say.

For those Babywise Foes, there is another psychologist, John Gottman, who attempts to explore this idea of emotional intelligence in a more palatable book, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child. I can not give it my full support just yet, but it is now on my short list of books to read as it generally gets excellent reviews. Check it out for yourself or check back later for my review.

For those who already have kids, Babywise or not, it might be interesting to try a little Marshmallow Test of your own at home. I would love to hear what kind of resutls you get.

Next Post

Our Experience: The 8-week mark

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6 Responses to On Becoming Babywise: The Stanford Marshmallow Study

  1. A couple of years ago I read about this report. It has truly made me aware of how my eldest daughter acts/reacts. She struggles with delayed gratification…we didn’t follow Babywise (didn’t know about it much) but she was on a flex schedule. I’m pretty sure if I were to give her a marshmallow she would have it eaten before I walked away. I’ll let you know.

  2. Jennifer says:

    Um..I don’t want to know how Kaden will do with the marshmellow test.

  3. Jennifer says:

    Okay..so I must say I’m in shock. I decided to be brave and give Kaden (my almost 5 yr old) the “marshmellow test,” and to my surprise…HE PASSED!! I left him alone with the single marshmellow for 20 minutes. When I came back in, I asked him if he wanted to eat it…his reply, “I wanted to eat it, but I didn’t because I wanted more marshmellows.” Miracles do exist..haha!! Kidding…but I was very impressed.

  4. Pingback: Babywise 101 | SmartParentsBlog.com

  5. Pingback: Key to Success – Delayed Gratification « Journey To Your Potential

  6. Robin F. says:

    I would like to know how many of the kids who were unable to delay gratification (in both studies) were from working class and working poor backgrounds. To me, their inability to delay gratification would have more to do with their lack of food – could they have been hungry? There is the possibility that a poor child would not have a chance to have a snack given to them – parents may not buy it for them, may not have the money to purchase the treat, have to share with siblings, etc. so a treat given to them would be a greater temptation than one given to a middle class counterpart. Children from poor and working class backgrounds are also more likely to have had adults break promises – so they are more likely to not believe what a stranger tells them (that they will receive another marshmellow) so they eat it.

    If there were more poor and working class students who were unable to delay gratification, in the study, and more middle class students who were able to wait and receive two marshmallows then that also makes sense that they would be more successful later on in life. Studies have shown that the way middle class students are raised helps to almost ensure their success in school, work, and family life.

    Doesn’t also seem that by delaying gratification for the sake of receiving two marshmallows seem just a little bit greedy?

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