Marshmallow Matters, Part 1

30 Aug

My co-teachers are obsessed with the Marshmallow Experiment. It’s an American-run experiment from 1972 but my Japanese English teachers are in love with it – and they are not alone. It’s featured in at least one senior high school English textbook here. Below is the textbook article in its entirety; the piece is both problematic and representative of various cultural differences between Japan and the U.S.

I have a lot to say about this, so I’ve divided it into two parts. First I’ll address the problems I have with this article, and in Part 2 I’ll get to the cultural stuff. I hope you’ll bear with me!

Marshmallow Matters

Around 1970, psychologist Walter Mischel carried out a classic experiment. He left a succession of 4-year-olds in a room with a marshmallow, which they could see but not reach, and a bell. If they rang the bell, he would come back and they could eat the marshmallow. If, however, they didn’t ring the bell and waited for him to come back on his own, they could then have two marshmallows.

In videos of the experiment, you can see the children twisting about, kicking, hiding their eyes – desperately trying to exercise self-control so they can wait and get two marshmallows. Their performance varied widely. Some broke down and rang the bell within a minute, while others lasted 15 minutes.

The children who waited longer went on to get higher SAT scores. They got into better colleges and had, on average, better adult outcomes. The children who rang the bell quicker were more likely to become problem pupils. They received worse evaluations from teachers and parents 10 years later and were more likely to have drug problems at age 32.

The Mischel experiment is worth noting because its results show that self-control is essential to succeed in life. Young people who can delay gratification can sit through sometimes boring classes to get a degree. They can perform simple repetitive tasks in order to, for example, master a language. They can avoid drugs and alcohol. For people without self-control skills, however, school is a series of failed ordeals. No wonder they drop out. For them, life is a series of foolish decisions: teenage pregnancy, drugs, gambling and crime.

The good news is that while differences in the ability to delay gratification emerge early and persist, that ability can be improved with conscious effort. What works is creating stable, predictable environments for children, in which good behavior pays off.


If you found that interesting, please check out some adorable YouTube videos of similar experiments being run. But now I’d like to address two – ok, three – really problematic aspects of this article appearing in a textbook for young students.

The third I’ll get out of the way quickly – I think it’s B.S. I don’t care that it’s a Stanford-backed experiment, and they have some hard data (not nearly as concrete or wide-reaching as this article implies!) to back it up. It’s B.S., and I hate the idea that kids are being told about this as if it’s dogma.

That said, here are my two real problems with this:

  1. Its absolutism. This article implies that either you were a child who demonstrated self-control and “succeeded in life,” or you succumbed to temptation and thereafter had a disgraceful waste of a life. It implies that students who have “problems” in school will end up pregnant, addicted to drugs, or as failures. There are only two kinds of people in this viewpoint, and you just know that some students reading this will see the “problematic pupil” line and think that their futures are written in stone.
  1. As an English teacher, I GET REALLY ANGRY reading this line: “They can perform simple repetitive tasks in order to, for example, master a language.” THAT’S NOT HOW YOU LEARN A LANGUAGE. This misinformed, insidious little line actually reveals a common attitude about English language education here in Japan. I suspect that’s part of why Japanese TOEFL-takers rank third-lowest in Asia, above only Cambodia and Laos (and below North Korea.) :-/

So, that’s how I feel about that. Please share your thoughts on any of this in the comments.

In Part 2 I’ll free-associate for far too long about the cultural implications of this article.


One Response to “Marshmallow Matters, Part 1”


  1. Marshmallow Matters, Part 2 « Tara-sensei's Blog - September 23, 2011

    […] on the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment printed in my high school’s senior English textbook. Part 1 is here, while this part will be about Japanese (and American) […]

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