The Marshmallow Test as a Predictor of Future Financial Woes


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In the 1970’s Dr. Walter Mischel of Stanford University conducted the famous marshmallow tests where he put 600 of 4-year olds into a room by themselves and told them they could have one marshmallow or cookie right away, or wait until he came back and have two marshmallows or cookies. This test of willpower, self-control and immediate gratification ended in 30% of the preschoolers eating the treats and some waiting as long as 20 minutes to double the number of treats. The interesting learning from this study is how 4-year olds performed on this test predicted patterns later in life. In short, children who were able to delay gratification were more successful later in life. They performed better on the SAT and were described by parents as (Mischel, Yoda & Rodriguez 1983) “more attentive and able to concentrate, competent, planful, and intelligent.” While students who were unable to delay gratification were not as successful later in life sometimes dropping out of school or engaging in risky behaviors.

Decades later, Sesame Street is using the learning from Mischel’s marshmallow tests to teach financial literacy. In a June 3, 2011 report PBS Newshour correspondent Paul Solman described how Elmo, Grover and Cookie Monster provided strategies for smart ways to save and spend money based Mischel’s principles of delayed gratification. Solman began,

If Elmo’s going to save, that would distinguish him from a host of grownup Americans, more than a third of whom have a mere $1,000 or less socked away, in total. Twenty-nine percent of us report not having saved one penny for retirement. Related, perhaps, we can’t calculate our way out of a paper bag.

Remember the 30% of children who were unable to delay gratification? Strikingly familiar to the 29% of Americans who reported not saving for retirement. Children who have very little self control tend to suffer from severe financial woes by the time they are in their 30’s. Self control transcends socioeconomic conditions and intelligence. Self-control can also be learned.

Some strategies for building self control and willpower include shifting your attention away from the temptation and changing the way you think about the object you desire. Think about it, if you have your sights and intentions locked on a marshmallow and cannot get it out of your mind, the act of paying attention to the marshmallow increases desire to eat the marshmallow. While shifting attention away removes the marshmallow from your mind. In the case of Sesame Street, they’re working to get kids into the habit of saving earlier and importantly, giving them rules of what is appropriate when it comes to finances and financial literacy.

Being a parent of a 5-year old and a 7-year old, I find the marshmallow tests disturbing. Would my children be able to resist temptation? To find out, I ran a similar test using chocolate morsels. My 7-year old did well, while my 5-year old gave in a bit to temptation. Interestingly, in my heart of hearts, I knew this would be the outcome. While my 5-year old did not technically eat the entire chocolate morsel, he licked it twice before he instinctively made toys out of some of the items in the room to distract himself. With the outcome of the morsel test, I plan to include teaching self-control in our family routine.

Given 1.5 million Americans filed for bankruptcy in 2010 and the terrible fiscal condition of countries around the globe, perhaps we should all pay heed to Mischel’s marshmallow tests and Sesame Street’s initiatives. As I’ve mentioned in past articles, research on neuroplasticity tells us while we are born with particular brain patterns, we can change those patterns based on our experiences. Sounds like we long overdue for creativity in thinking up new experiences to promote financial literacy.

This article was originally posted on IIR’s Front End of Innovation as The Marshmallow Test as a Predictor of Future Financial Woes


Mischel, Walter, Yuichi Shoda, and Monica L. Rodriguez. “Delay of gratification in children.” Science 244.4907 (1989): 933+. Academic OneFile. Web. 4 June 2011.

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One Response to The Marshmallow Test as a Predictor of Future Financial Woes

  1. Pingback: Short Video: Marshmallows, Children, and Success « Some Chad Vice

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