The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment: Researching Delayed Gratification

In the Stanford marshmallow experiment, the researchers wanted to find a relationship between the ability to delay gratification and the level of general well-being. Discover their findings here.
The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment: Researching Delayed Gratification
Sharon Laura Capeluto

Written and verified by the psychologist Sharon Laura Capeluto.

Last update: 26 March, 2023

Let’s take a little trip back in time and go back to your childhood. Imagine that you’re sitting in front of a dish of your favorite candies. How long would it be before you start eating them? Childhood has been extensively researched and we know that this stage isn’t characterized by patience or resistance to desires.

However, impatience isn’t just inherent in children. Indeed, as adults, we often choose to obtain immediate gratification, even if the consequences in the medium or short term harm our long-term interests. For example, if you’re hungry but the fridge is empty. In this case, phoning for takeout can be just too tempting, even though you know that it isn’t the healthiest option. In fact, it’d be healthier for you to walk to the store, as well as better for your finances.

How about that shirt you saw in the store the other day that you liked so much? No problem, you can have it in 24 hours and wear it at the weekend. Or, you should be studying, but your friends have asked you out. No contest. And, as for giving up a cold beer in summer…unthinkable.

When you’re faced with these types of decisions, your prefrontal lobe is activated. Your desire, promoted by the limbic system, confronts the thought (defended by the neocortex) that what’s tempting you isn’t really what’s best for you. In effect, your brain’s reward system is involved in an intense dialogue about the salience of the almost constant various reinforcers or punishments in your internal world.

Delayed gratification is related to self-control and greater self-confidence.

The Stanford marshmallow experiment

It was the psychologist, Walter Mischel, from Stanford University (USA) who, many years ago, investigated the importance of this type of delayed gratification in childhood. His team wanted to discover the value of being able to resist the temptation of an immediate reinforcement in favor of a larger one in the long term.

The experimental subjects in Mischel’s study were boys and girls aged between three and five years of age. He sat each child in front of a plate on which was a single marshmallow. They were told that if they didn’t eat it within 15 minutes, they’d have access to another one.

The results

The research aimed to study the association between impulse control in childhood as a predictor of certain traits later in life. Therefore, after a few years, the children of the study were called again. It was found that the children who’d waited for the two marshmallows exhibited better academic performance, self-esteem, and self-confidence, compared to those who’d eaten the first marshmallow.

After another few years, the children, now adults, were called again. It was observed that those who’d managed to overcome temptation had less tendency to be overweight, were in good health, more competent in their social relationships, and had jobs with higher qualifications.

Revised marshmallow experiment

Later, Professor Tyler Watts doubted the results of the marshmallow experiment, considering that the sample had not been wholly representative. He argued that it was conducted with a sample of fewer than 90 children with extremely similar characteristics, who’d grown up in similar contexts.

Therefore, he replicated the investigation, being especially careful with the sampling. In fact, his team brought together more than 900 children from different cultures, ethnic groups, and socioeconomic levels.

The study concluded that economic variables were significantly associated with the children’s ability to delay gratification. Those from wealthier families demonstrated greater self-control. They also proved to be in better situations the second time they were brought together for evaluation.

Girl in front of a sponge
Tyler Watts replicated Mischel’s research and found that economic variables also played a role in delayed gratification in children.

The need for immediate satisfaction

Society today seems to be designed for immediate gratification. Indeed, it isn’t easy to practice tolerance for frustration and be able to wait. As a matter of fact, in certain contexts, the decision to wait has come to be considered somewhat stupid. After all, why wait when we have unlimited access to what we want when we want? Why wait if we can have it now?

In general terms, the results of this study are debatable. That said, it can’t be ignored that systematically opting for an instant option prevents us from facing situations that are conducive to training our tolerance for frustration. In addition, immediacy also devalues the value of certain boosters, while increasing the discomfort we feel after obtaining them.

“Without delayed gratification, goals are not achieved and objectives don’t get accomplished.”

-Sunday Adelaja-

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Bembenutty H., Karabenick S. A. (2004). Asociación inherente entre el retraso académico de la gratificación, la perspectiva del tiempo futuro y el aprendizaje autorregulado. Educational Psychology Review, págs. 16, 35–57.
  • Watts T. (2018). Revisitando la prueba del malvavisco: una réplica conceptual que investiga los vínculos entre el retraso temprano de la gratificación y los resultados posteriores. Journals Sage.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.