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Scientists Who Devised Marshmallow Test to Study Childrens’ Willpower Win Golden Goose Award

Eat one marshmallow now, or wait a while and eat two? Your choice may reveal more than your taste for sweets.

The "marshmallow test" devised by psychologist Walter Mischel, who has done most of his research at Stanford and Columbia Universities, was originally conducted with preschoolers to test their ability to delay gratification. Years later, Mischel along with Philip Peake and Yuichi Shoda, who are currently on the faculty at Smith College and University of Washington, respectively, followed up with the test subjects to see how their lives were progressing. The researchers' findings led to important insights into the links between young children's willpower and later life outcomes, and into methods for enhancing self-control. For this research, Mischel, Peake, and Shoda have been selected to receive the first of the 2015 Golden Goose Awards.

The Golden Goose Awards honor federally funded basic research that may have seemed odd or obscure at first but has led to discoveries with rich benefits for society.  Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) first proposed the award when the late Senator William Proxmire (D-Wis.) was issuing the Golden Fleece Award to target wasteful federal spending and often targeted peer-reviewed science because it sounded odd.

In 2012, a coalition of business, university, and scientific organizations created the Golden Goose Award. Like the bipartisan group of members of Congress who support the award, the founding organizations believe that federally funded basic scientific research is the cornerstone of American innovation and essential to our economic growth, health, global competitiveness, and national security. Award recipients are selected by a panel of respected scientists and university research leaders.

For their work over the past 50 years, which has been supported by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, Mischel, Peake, and Shoda will be recognized on 17 September at the fourth annual Golden Goose Awards ceremony in Washington, D.C. Additional Golden Goose Awards will be announced later in the year.

In the initial experiments, Mischel would give a preschooler a choice before leaving the room: "Get one little treat now, or two if you can wait for me to come back." Researchers did not film the initial experiments, but subsequent "marshmallow test" studies have been filmed and posted online. The methods used by children to distract themselves from the single treat in front of them include singing songs, playing with their toes, turning their backs, or inventing elaborate imaginative scenarios and monologues. Some succeed, and some do not.

A number of years after the initial experiments, the researchers checked in on their test subjects. They found that those who had exhibited self-control were generally doing better — they had greater social and academic success and were better able to handle stress and pursue goals than those who had been unable to resist eating the single marshmallow.

Over decades, the researchers have documented correlations between the ability to delay gratification and life outcomes as diverse as SAT scores, body-mass index, the frequency of drug abuse, and measurable differences in brain functioning, which are visible thanks to modern functional MRI techniques.

However, the researchers have also learned from their work that the ability to achieve self-control is not ingrained at the age of four. It can be taught, and it can be practiced and learned. Some educators, such as the KIPP schools, are using methods developed from the work of Mischel, Peake, and Shoda. And, these methods can be used to teach positive life strategies, from maintaining healthy habits to saving for retirement.

[Adapted from a Golden Goose Award press release]


Kathy Wren