The Marshmallow Test

Robert didn’t do it right and was being a crybaby, and Carolyn started to cry, even though when asked how she did, she said couldn’t remember. This all seemed to make Thomas nervous; the whole room of his friends was breaking down.

“Shit,” said Mischel, from his post behind the one-way mirror. He swore often, and this time, the crudeness likely came from a mix of empathy for the situation unfolding in front of him, of the potentially compromising effect this crying could have on Thomas, and of his anger over the coffee now running down his sweater, dribbling its way to the floor.

Mischel left his observation post and joined Karen, one of the Bing’s teachers, in trying to calm the children. He picked up, off of the red carpet, Thomas who dropped the Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang toy model car that he was playing with in a seemingly overwhelmed reaction to the emotional situation. This commenced the day’s last scheduled experiment. I readied my field notebook as the ritual began on the other side of the one-way mirrors.

Mischel put Thomas down, took his hand and began to lead him towards the game room. The Bing hadn’t appropriated much space for this game room, which was more of a closet-sized box, but for us it was proving experimentally sufficient. Once the door closed behind Mischel and Thomas, the experiment truly began.

1:17 PM.

Mischel (M) begins his explanation of the experiment to Thomas (T).

M: “Thomas, do you know why you are here today?” M raises his shoulders and eyebrows as he heightens the pitch of his voice at the end of the sentence. M is acting out his sentences like he always does.

T seems to have calmed down from the previous, emotionally trying episode. He shrugs in response to M’s question, clutching the seat of the chair with his hands on either side of his thighsand bringing his shoulders up so that they bump into his earlobes. He seems nervous, like the others did, dwarfed by the adult-sized desk behind which he is sitting.

M: “Well, remember when we talked to mommy,” eyebrows up, hands up, voice pitch up, “well, today is that day you get to help me on my,” hands together, like praying but finger tips pointing in towards his chest rather than skyward, “project,” hands and arms arc out from his chest to the sides in a fully extended position. “So let’s get to it.”

I took my eyes off of the game room, for a moment, and swiveled my chair to see back into the Bing’s classroom were things had calmed. Robert and Carolyn stopped crying, and they were both now spreading the legs of a Dancerina Doll over an Apollo Saturn Moon Rocket model, and sending the ballerina for a ride.

“Like this,” Robert said.

“No,” Carolyn said, “do like this.” She shifted the doll from the midsection of the rocket forwards. The ballerina swung around the room, launching and stalling without rhythm.

Karen, the teacher, checked her watch against the clock on the wall and then continued to try to fix, or to operate, a portable 8-Track Cartridge Player that she usually used to play The Muppet Alphabet Album.  For the three of them, and for myself as well, I suppose, the room had quickly regained normalcy.

I once heard, from a social work professor who worked seasonally for River Way Ranch Camp in Fresno, that the world would be a healthier place if we all cried like toddlers. When a toddler spills something, milk would complete the adage, they cry, and then continue their day, having, for a short while, drained their frustration. Adults, I postulate, carry that anxiety with them, pent up until the top blows off more dangerously.

Mischel often said, “If you want to know why some kids can wait and others can’t, then you’ve got to think like they think.” Our whole team seems to act like kids often, which means we are well suited for our jobs and our experiment’s exploration. However, I have not seen any one of us cry and I do not know my fellow researchers’ outlets. Collectively we swear quite a bit, but who knows what Mischel or the others do when they leave the Bing for their houses in the early evening.  I swiveled my chair back to the game room.

1:19 PM.

M circles around the back of T’s chair and reaches into the file cabinet part of the desk. He produces a paper plate, on which are a marshmallow, an Oreo, and a pretzel stick. He places the plate in front of T. He then takes out a call bell from the top left drawer and puts that on the desktop as well. He sits down on the desk next to the plate of treats.

T is still clutching the chair but his shoulders have dropped and he is leaning forward, chin over the desk.

M: “Alright-y, so the first question I have for you is which one of these foods do you like the mo—”

T: “The marshmallow!”

Mischel looked up at the one-way mirror and smiled. I smiled back even though he missed my gaze by about three feet; he was smiling at a stack of child profiles on top of the filing cabinet in the observation room.

“We might as well call this thing the marshmallow test,” Mischel once said.

Just today, three out of three of the children selected the marshmallow over the Oreo and the pretzel stick. I’m an Oreo guy myself, and Mischel is a pretzel stick man, but, since we’ve got to start thinking like the children think, we have both started enjoying the corn starchy gelatin of the marshmallow.

1:21 PM.

M: “Okay,” his head went up high pulling his spine with it and then he bowed back down,“so here’s how it works. In about a minute,” his right index finger raises,“I,” his left index finger points at the middle of his chest,“am going to leave the room and I am going to leave this marshmallow,” both fingers point down at the treat on the plate.

T: “Can I eat it?” T lifts his bottom off of the chair and supports himself on his arms, which are locked at the elbow joint in full extension.

M: “So, you can eat it, but,” M raises his right index finger again and moves it quickly from pointing upwards to pointing at T’s face, “if you wait for me to come back, then I will give you two marshmallows.” M flashes the peace sign at T.“Again,” M’s head moves in toward the hairline on T’s forehead,“you can eat this marshmallow whenever you want, but,” M’s head tilts further towards T’s forehead,“if you wait for me to come back into the room then you get two marshmallows.”

T furrows his brow and looks pouty. He crosses his legs at the ankles, still dangling his whole lower body above the chair with his arms.

T: “This is going to be hard.” He unlocks his elbows causing his feet to clunk audibly on the carpeted floor and his bottom to land on the seat of the chair with a “pshhht” sound. T gets it.

At this point during past episodes of this experiment, once Mischel delivered his animated explanation, a few of the kids resigned. They said they were not interested in trying this out.

“That’s how we know we’ve designed it well,” Mischel once said, “because a few of the kids quit as soon as we explain the conditions to them.” Mischel then smiled, wide-eyed, like an excited, even malicious, scientist with his eyebrows overly arched as he contently said, “They know this is going to be hard.”

1:22 PM.

M grabs the Oreo and the pretzelstick with his left hand and reaches under his outstretched left arm to ring the call bell.

M: “Now,” M is still in this crisscross arm position, “since I am going to be out of the room, and it can be kind of scary to be alone, I want you to know about this bell.” M uncrosses his arm by pulling away his left arm and putting it, along with the Oreo and pretzel in his left hand, behind his back.

T is staring at the marshmallows.

M: “Are you listening? If at any point during the experiment you want me to come back just ring this bell,” M touches the bell with his right index finger, “and I will come running.” M uses his right index and middle fingers to show the likeness of a pair of legs running across the desk from the marshmallow to the bell.

T’s eyeballs follow these running legs but his head remains pointed toward the marshmallow.

M: “Ready, big T?” M lifts his bottom up, keeps his left hand behind his back, swings around the back of T’s chair and gives T a pat on the left shoulder with his right hand.

T: “Ready,” his feet are back up off the floor, his bottom is elevated off the chair seat and his elbows are locked.

A moment later Mischel appeared in the observation room next to me. He checked that I started the large stopwatch, which we kept on the desk next to the one-way mirror that looked into the game room, and then he handed me the Oreo. Mischel ate half of his pretzel stick in two chews and said, “Thomas made a good choice in foods.” We both smiled.

“Not sure how long he is going to last though,” I said.

“Yeah, he’s starting out staring.”

There’re many techniques we’ve seen kids use to try and get through the fifteen minutes of waiting, and many have not been successful.

Richard had failed the test even though after two minutes he bounced, thrusting his body upward while holding onto the seat of the chair and twisting his torso, until the chair’s back was to the desk. He turned around three times in two minutes to check on the treat and on the fourth turn he grabbed it.

Mary had treated the marshmallow as a pet. She smiled at it for a while and then poked at with her left index finger and giggled. She then made a flat platform with her left hand and with her right thumb and index finger made the marshmallow hop twice to get onto the platform. Once on the platform the marshmallow received small pats and pets until Mary’s right index finger and thumb made it hop three more times, to her left wrist to her nose and then into her mouth.

Craig had raided the drawers of the desk and found our stash of marshmallows, cookies, and pretzels and took us for all we worth. He was sitting criss-cross-applesauce in front of the file cabinet drawer with a mound of marshmallows between his cupped hands and his open mouth when Mischel rushed in shaking his head in a mix of comedic appreciation and disapproval.

Scott, who chose the Oreo as his treat—my kind of kid—had spent a few minutes staring at the cookie and then he smiled. He scanned the room, from the left to the right, and even hopped his knees up onto the seat of the chair in order to check behind him. He then spun back around, grabbed the top cookie of the Oreo in between his right index finger and thumb and the bottom of the cookie between his left index finger and thumb and twisted.Scott licked away the Oreo’s cream, reconstructed the now center-less cookie and waited for Mischel’s return.

Tammy had done a lot to distract herself. She twirled and pulled at her braided hair, at one point throwing it over her eyes to play hide and go seek with the marshmallow. She kicked at the desk, mumbled to herself repeatedly, played a game with her hands where she interlocked seemingly random fingers and then yanked her hands apart and threw three different tantrums. What she didn’t do was ring the bell and she was she was very happy, and I think a little bit shocked, that this all earned her a second marshmallow.

Thomas was still staring at the marshmallow seven minutes into the experiment. This was usually not the way to go. He then started doing something with his hands.

1:29 PM.

T uses his right index finger and seems to be drawing a box in front of the marshmallow. Not a box around the marshmallow but a vertical box, like a windowpane or see-through screen in front of the marshmallow. His right index finger sweeps from left to right, sweeps down to the desk’s surface, sweeps on the desk from right to left and then sweeps backs up to complete the square. He then shakes his head and looks down at his hands.

T is frowning. He places his elbows on the desk, and puts his wrists together and rests his chin in his palms.

1:33 PM.

T drops his hands to his sides letting his chin rest on the desk. The marshmallow is about a foot and a half away from his nose. He makes an L-shape with the index finger and thumb of his right hand and places the thumb on the desk in front of him. He makes an L-shape with the index finger and thumb of his left hand and slips the index finger along the desk’s surface bringing the tips of the thumbs to the tips of the index fingers of the opposite hand and in so doing creating a rectangle. He frames the marshmallow like a painting.

“I hope you’re taking good notes,” Mischel said.

“The whole thing’s filmed anyway,” I said not taking my eyes off of Thomas. “Do you know what he’s up to?”

Mischel crunched on the second half of his pretzel. Back in the classroom Karen was still playing with the cassette player, and Carolyn and Robert crashed the ballerina into a wall. The Bing was a funny place to be a kid.