Weekend Reading: Debunking The Marshmallow Test Edition

The marshmallow test is a famous experiment designed to measure a child’s patience and willpower. Place a marshmallow in front of a child and tell him he can have a second treat if he can go 15 minutes without eating the first one. The research, which was conducted in the 1960s, suggested that those who pass the delayed gratification test tend to do better in school and go on to have successful careers.

But a new study published last week found that the ability to hold out for a second marshmallow was less about delayed gratification and more about the child’s social and economic background. It was this background that determined a child’s chance at future success, not their capacity to hold out for a second treat.

The researchers, NYU’s Tyler Watts and UC Irvine’s Greg Duncan and Hoanan Quan, restaged the classic marshmallow test with a much larger sample size (900 subjects versus 90) that was more representative of the general population in terms of race, ethnicity, and parents’ education.

Among kids whose mothers did not have college degrees, those who waited did no better than those who gave in to temptation. For those kids, self-control alone couldn’t overcome economic and social disadvantages.

Kids from poorer households might have less motivation to wait for that second marshmallow. There’s a scarcity mindset that values short-term outcomes over long-term rewards. Meanwhile, in well-off households, it might be easier for children to delay gratification when the pantry is always fully stocked and treats are aplenty.

The other thought is that less affluent parents might get a boost of joy out of indulging their kids with a treat once in a while, whereas richer parents might prefer their kids to wait for bigger rewards.

The bottom line: Consider the results from the original marshmallow test debunked.

Weekend Reading: Marshmallow Test Debunked Edition

This Week’s Recap

On this post-race recovery week I recapped my half-marathon over on the Echo Runner blog.

I’ve had more to say recently on Rewards Cards Canada where I asked a behavioural economist about WestJet’s clever marketing trick.

I’m ramping up my travel rewards collecting and revealed how to unlock $850 in Aventura points from this CIBC rewards card three-pack.

And finally, one for the Air Miles collectors – I review the BMO Air Miles World Elite MasterCard, which has a terrific promotion on right now that pays a welcome bonus of up to 3,000 Air Miles.

Next week I’ll look at the best place to park your short-term cash, plus a better way to redeem unused rewards points.

Weekend Reading:

Neighbours of lottery winners are more likely to go bankrupt. Why? Because seeing someone else get rich puts people into spending mode.

The brilliant Morgan Housel shares nearly 8,000 words on the psychology of money, describing 20 flaws, biases, and causes of bad behaviour that pop-up often when people deal with money.

The Irrelevant Investor Michael Batnick answers this reader question: “My dad has $1.8 million dollars worth of GE. What should he do?

On the Debt Free in 30 podcast: How one man survived a layoff after 20 years at Canada’s biggest company.

The Lemonade blog, a Dan Ariely inspired project, explains why you can’t stop looking at your phone.

“When you perform a specific behaviour over and over again that triggers a certain reward, the pattern becomes etched into your neural pathways. Soon enough, your brain begins to crave that reward regularly.”

Preet Banerjee is back with another investing video that looks at top level asset classes such as cash, real estate, commodities, and alternative investments:

The team at Spring Plans shares an important resource about how to get your RESP money out now that tuition, textbook, and accommodation invoices have started to roll in.

Will we have enough for our children’s University tuition? Million Dollar Journey blogger Frugal Trader explains where he’s at with his kids’ RESPs.

The Stocktrades blog shares 55 ways to invest $1,000 (and make a killing).

A number of Canada’s big banks are under investigation by the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada for possible violations of the consumer rules in the Bank Act.

Tens of thousands of banking customers at BMO and Simplii Financial may have had their accounts compromised after “fraudsters” gained access to personal and financial information.

Here’s Rob Carrick on how to protect yourself when your bank’s online security fails.

My Own Advisor Mark Seed explains the benefits of variable percentage withdrawals in retirement.

For retirees: Don’t slam on the brakes – keep active and ease into retirement.

A new book argues that many of us are working in meaningless “bullshit jobs”. Let automation continue and liberate people through universal basic income.

Finally, here’s how blogger Bridget Casey budgeted her way through a surprise pregnancy.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. fbgcai on June 3, 2018 at 7:25 pm

    the link for Bridget Casey points to the boomer & echo page on being an executor

    • Robb Engen on June 3, 2018 at 8:16 pm

      Whoops, it’s been fixed now – thanks!

  2. The Curious Frugal on June 3, 2018 at 9:10 pm

    As someone who has referenced the marshmallow test on more than one occasion (I don’t think ever at parties but I can’t promise I wouldn’t lol), I was interested to hear about the big follow-up study. And congrats on your first half-marathon!

    • Robb Engen on June 3, 2018 at 9:21 pm

      Yes, a very interesting follow up indeed. I’d be willing to bet that many of these original behavioural studies done with small samples on college campuses might be debunked by a larger study with proper controls.

      And thanks!

  3. Steveark on June 4, 2018 at 1:14 pm

    I linked back to the new study and I do not think it debunks the previous one so much as it questions whether the test results were more of an environmental effect than a causative factor in future performance. It does correlate success at the marshmallow test with the education of the mothers which in turn correlates well with economic status and overall family stability and adult success. The new work still shows that kids that can defer gratification do better than those who can’t. The reasons probably have more to do with environment than some inherent quality in the kid but the fact is the kids with lower education level moms fail the test more and do worse in life, period. It also focused mostly on kids whose mother’s did not complete college. The results really cannot be extrapolated to determine if the test is valid for the kids of highly educated parents. Finally it did not track success at all past the 15th birthday. I don’t think adult success even correlates all that well with performance at 15 years of age. To me this new study points out that neither study has much value in terms of being able to predict individual adult success based on a childhood test but measuring the education and income of the parents is a very highly reliable indicator of future success for the child regardless of his marshmallow score.

  4. Jordan @ MoneyMaaster.com on June 4, 2018 at 1:50 pm

    Funny, I was just listening to a story about the marshmallow test and how it was debunked 🙂

    As usual, lots of great articles/links. All the best.

Leave a Comment

Join More Than 10,000 Subscribers!

Sign up now and get our free e-Book- Financial Management by the Decade - plus new financial tips and money stories delivered to your inbox every week.