Retesting “the marshmallow test”

Bookmarked New Study Disavows Marshmallow Test’s Predictive Powers (

Following the Bing children into their 40s, the new study finds that kids who quickly gave in to the marshmallow temptation are generally no more or less financially secure, educated or physically healthy than their more patient peers. The amount of time the child waited to eat the treat failed to forecast roughly a dozen adult outcomes the researchers tested, including net worth, social standing, high interest-rate debt, diet and exercise habits, smoking, procrastination tendencies and preventative dental care, according to the study published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization.

Hey, this is how the scientific method works: retest and retest to see if the results hold. Especially digging into some of the limitations of the original study like a homogeneous sample group that received different guidance — and that the “how good they are at life” judgments are self-report data and flawed measures like BMI and multifactor measures like wealth accumulation that would need to be controlled for race and class — it is valuable to repeat the study and reevaluate the conclusions drawn.

Parents, policymakers and educators embraced the studies’ unwritten take-home message: To raise successful, responsible kids, we must teach them to resist that first marshmallow.

Wonderful, encouraging self denial and depriving ourselves of pleasure 🙃 Ties in with our Puritan roots 🤷‍♀️ (which raises suspicion that we may welcome results that reinforce our existing paradigms).

The Watts study findings support a common criticism of the marshmallow test: that waiting out temptation for a later reward is largely a middle or upper class behavior.

This highlights one of the challenges of reading pop-science and self-help books (which I do like to read): how much can we trust the author’s interpretation? Are the authors trained to evaluate the validity of and draw implications from studies like this? Did they do broad enough research to study a range of research or just jump to the popular studies? Did they follow up on studies paramount to their point to see if later studies continued to support the conclusions?

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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