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The Bing “Marshmallow Studies”: 50 Years of Continuing Research

By Janine Zacharia, Journalist and Bing Parent 

Walter Mischel’s pioneering research at Bing in the late 1960s and early 1970s famously explored what enabled preschool-aged children to forgo immediate gratification in exchange for a larger but delayed reward.

Resisting temptation, Mischel noted in a speech to several hundred Bing parents, is a problem that goes back to the story of Adam and Eve and the apple, and to Ulysses, who “tied himself to the mast to resist his temptations.” But until Mischel’s research at Bing, it was bypassed in modern science. Mischel, now a psychology professor at Columbia University, spoke at Stanford’s CEMEX Auditorium on Nov. 19, 2014.

The deliberately simple method Mischel devised to study willpower became known in popular culture as the “Marshmallow Test.” Mischel began by observing how those Bing children who could wait distracted themselves to avoid the temptations and used their imaginations to keep on waiting for their chosen goal. Some children turned their backs to the treats, or covered up their eyes so they couldn’t see them, or sang quietly to themselves (“Oh this is my home in Redwood City”). Others played with their toes as if they were piano keys, explored their nasal and ear cavities, or invented songs and games to amuse themselves to make the delay easier. And some sat quietly while giving themselves whispered self-instructions, repeating the contingency: “If I wait, then I get both; but if I don’t, then I just get one.”

This research identified some of the key cognitive skills, strategies, plans and mindsets that enable self-control. If the children focused on the “hot” qualities of the temptations (e.g., “The marshmallows are sweet, chewy, yummy”), they soon rang the bell to bring the researcher back. If they focused on their abstract “cool” features (“The marshmallows are puffy and round like cotton balls”), they managed to wait longer than the researchers, watching them through a one-way observation window, could bear. And when they imagined that the treats facing them were “just a picture” and were cued to “put a frame around it in your head” they were able to wait for almost 18 minutes. When Mischel asked a child how she managed to wait so long, she replied: “well you can’t eat a picture.”

These studies demystified willpower and showed how self-control and emotion regulation could be enhanced, taught and learned, beginning very early in life, even by children who initially had much difficulty delaying gratification.

The Bing research also yielded a surprise: What the preschoolers did as they tried to wait, unexpectedly predicted much about their future lives. “The more seconds they waited at age 4 or 5, the higher their SAT scores and the better their rated social and cognitive function in adolescence,” Mischel writes in his recent book, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control.

Children who waited longer tended to become more self-reliant, more self-confident, less distractible and more able to cope with stress as adolescents, he said. But, he added, he has reassured anxious parents over the years that a child’s ability to delay gratification in preschool does not determine their future. “Clearly, your future is not in a marshmallow,” he said, debunking the pithy but incorrect way popular media have summed up his findings.

It’s a terrible mistake to think that if a child can’t wait 15 minutes, the child has serious problems, Mischel said in his talk. “If the child is waiting 15 minutes, it is telling you something important: Now you know she is able to wait effectively for something when she really wants it.” But if she doesn’t wait it may mean she just didn’t think it was worth waiting for.

Most important, the research over the years by Mischel and many others has helped to clarify the mental and brain mechanisms that underlie self-control, and stimulated decades of research on “executive function” and self-regulation. Many educators and parents use the findings to help children learn self-control. As the public interest in willpower has increased, so has the research on how self-control works. In one follow-up study, published in 2011, Bing participants returned to Stanford 40 years later so that the researchers could examine aspects of their brain activity and how they relate to their self-control earlier in life.

In his recent book, Mischel gave an example from his own life. Fifty years ago he was a three-pack-a-day smoker who once caught himself in the shower smoking a pipe. He knew he needed to stop. But it wasn’t until Mischel saw a patient at Stanford Hospital being wheeled on a gurney, his head and chest shaved smooth, little paint marks to show where the radiation should go to treat him for metastasized lung cancer, that he managed to quit. Imagining himself on that gurney helped him change his habit. Seeing and vividly remembering that cancer patient each time he was tempted to smoke made those potential future consequences immediate and powerful. He called this “pre-living a delayed outcome” so that it is experienced in the here and now and not discounted because it’s far off.

In his acknowledgments, he expresses gratitude “to the children and families whose contributions and unstinting cooperation, often over the course of many years” made the Bing research possible. Two of Mischel’s graduate students, Yuichi Shoda and Philip K. Peake, have continued to work with him for more than three decades on the research begun at Bing. Mischel, Shoda and Peake, will be honored on Sept. 17 at the Library of Congress with the “2015 Golden Goose Award,” given for federally funded long-term basic research that turns out, often unexpectedly, to have important applications for human welfare.