In 1970, psychologists Walter Mischel and Ebbe Ebbesen carried out a clever experiment at Stanford University in America. The experiment, which became known as the Marshmallow Test, involved young children (aged four to six) being shown a marshmallow (or a cookie or pretzel) on a table. Each child was told they could eat the sweet immediately or, if they waited 15 minutes while the researcher was out of the room, they could have two marshmallows when the tester returned.
When the researchers left the room, some children just ate the marshmallow straight away. Some stroked it, others covered their eyes so they couldn’t look at it, others started kicking the table in frustration at wanting it but not wanting to spoil a better reward. Only a third of the 600 children tested managed to wait the full 15 minutes to get the second marshmallow.
When the same children were studied later in life, it was discovered that those children who were able to wait longer for a second marshmallow, did better in school, achieved more and were physically healthier.
The original experiment studied what is called immediate gratification – the desire to have a reward straightaway. It looked at the ability (or inability) to wait for something you want and at what age this develops in children.
Instead of expecting 2- and 3-year-olds to magically acquire self-control skills overnight, we need to model and teach these skills to them.