Suspect the Marshmallow Test?

What happens when something doesn’t pass your “gut instinct” test? You read an article, learn about a study or hear something presented as fact, yet it just doesn’t align with your previous knowledge or, perhaps, with your emotions. The two easy choices are to accept the new idea as more up-to-date and correct or to reject it as wrong. The harder choice is to delve deeper and explore the issue.

We constantly face this challenge concerning issues that matter. We can also list dozens of times that ‘experts’ were (intentionally or unintentionally) wrong, be they scientists or theologians, politicians or pundits, iconoclasts or a writer under the imprimatur of a venerated organization. Certainly, the expectation that an article in The New York Times or a statement by a lauded leader deserves an assumption of truth is now laughable rather than plausible.

When I had the chance to think about this on an issue that makes no difference in my life, I decided to test my own open-mindedness. I read an update on the famous “marshmallow test,” written by a researcher at the University of Santa Barbara, John Protzko. First popularized over fifty years ago, the marshmallow test involved an adult leaving a child alone in a room with a treat along with the promise that he or she would get more of the treat by waiting for the adult to return before consuming it. The oft-replicated study, along with follow-up analysis of SAT scores, is widely spoken of as showing that the ability to delay gratification when young correlates with greater success later in life. 

Dr. Protzko analyzed over 30 of these studies, spanning decades, and contends that the data shows that children are actually more disciplined and able to wait longer today than in the past. He even polled 260 experts  in child cognitive development and found that only 16% predicted the improvement. If polled, I would have been among the 84% expecting the opposite or, at best, no change. Surrounded by a culture of immediate gratification, why would children be more patient and disciplined than earlier generations? Was my gut right or should I now be newly enlightened?

I have previously mentioned the non-existent research team and highly limited budget, both in terms of time and money, under which my Musings operate. Detailed analysis of data was out of the question, despite the pride I still take in having gotten an ‘A’ in statistics in college. But I did spend a half-hour or so on my laptop to see where some probing would lead.

Not unexpectedly, I found that quite a few people had questions on methodology and I was pleasantly surprised to quickly find a number of responses from Mr. Protzko answering many of those queries. I also discovered that the so-called ‘marshmallow test’ early on included a prequel where children were alternatively given reason to trust or mistrust the adult giving the instructions. Not quite as innocent a test as it had seemed on the surface. I was left with quite a few unanswered questions of my own augmented by some I hadn’t thought of but others had. My conclusion is that the jury is still out. The idea still doesn’t ring true to me, I haven’t been convinced otherwise, but I am open to hearing more.

As I said, I have no skin in this game. Whether Dr. Protzko’s thesis is correct or incorrect affects nothing in my immediate life. But in an era when we are unceasingly bombarded by information and misinformation, I found this both an interesting and worthwhile exercise. Today, we have no choice but to skeptically examine almost everything we are told and, of course, to judge whether it conflicts with bedrock principles. Being wise is getting harder by the day.

28 thoughts on “Suspect the Marshmallow Test?”

  1. I understand. I don’t know that I think it is entirely questionable, per se. I think we just share these things around without examining them closely enough. I appreciate your post asking questions about something many people simply accept at face value.

  2. Thank you! I have often heard accounts of this ‘marshmallow test’ related, including over the pulpit by people of high integrity. But I have always regarded it with suspicion. When I was a kid growing up in a large but poor family, I was often a bit more hungry than was normal. At the same time, I hated sweets. So I have no idea how I would have reacted to the test if I had been a child test subject. Would I have been hungry enough that day? Or would I have been picky enough that day? Would I have eaten it to be polite or because I thought it was expected of me? I often did that, as well, especially when it came to sweets. I only ate them because adults seemed to think all children wanted sweets, and that I was supposed to be obliging.

    1. Lora, I don’t know enough to say that the test isn’t valid – that’s not what I was trying to say. Simply that you need to look behind the data of headlines because there is almost always a story beneath the story. Your point, of course, is valid about some kids being less attracted to sweets and figuring out what the adult wants from them.

  3. Mrs Lapin,

    As many people looking into different ideas and studies bound to them, I find conflicting studies and results on many subjects.

    Charles Walters, the founder of the organic magazine,ACRES USA, once told of speaking to an Iowa State professor many years ago regarding some farming or husbandry practice. This professor went to to say, “if you give me $100,000, I can prove anything.” Money talks and bias abounds!

    As an example, looking into the low fat/high carb/low protein diet vs. the low carb, high fat, high protein diet, I found compelling research proving each view point. Who to believe? I boil it down to one thot, “If YeHoVaH made it, it’s ok to eat; if man made it, you better watchout”

    I don’t know if man first ate meat after being expelled from the Garden of Eden or before, but after the expulsion from Eden, there are many Biblical references to eating meat and its’ fat, dairy, butter and grains. Eating saturated fats (animal, cocunut oils) in the last 100 years has been linked to arteriosclerosis as well as high sugar and carbs (grains of all kinds). Records show little heart disease before 1921 (the first recorded myocardial infarction.) My family was agrairian in nature and ate the fats and meat of animals along with grains, butter and eggs, etc. Many lived to be very old when the life span was shorter the last 2 centuries on average. Was the research biased? Much of the research was provided funding by some entity wanting a particular outecome. Sometimes it’s easy to find the bias, sometimes not. I am somewhat on the fence of this high fat/low carb vs. low fat high carb issue, but i lean more toward what man has eaten for thousands of years, meaning some meat, dairy and grain in moderation. Butter vs. margarine, free-range animals vs. confinement, organic vs GMO grains, etc. I’ll stay on the side of the creator and eat in moderation, after all people have died of drinking too much water in as short of a time as possible. Moderation and common sense (the most uncommon thing there is today) is where I am treading today.

  4. PS
    Based on what I could perceive from the article about you (and, therefore, the Rabbi) I ended up on Amazon buying two of the Rabbi’s books!

    I am labeled a “Messianic Christian” but my shelves have a growing section of books from various Rabbis. I feel the biggest error of Christianity began when the 2nd/3rd century congregations and leadership became infused with the philosophies of Greece. They discarded (I’m being polite here) all references to anything Jewish and so gave away their inheritance for a mess of pottage. The result was movement anemic of its Hebraic heritage. So, literally centuries upon centuries of Christians had their very roots in faith hidden – stolen – from them. Sadly, even today few know little of the wisdom to be found in books like Rabbi Lapin’s, (or even what’s contained in the Scripture).

    So, I say thank you. And may you be blessed.


    1. George, there was an amazing amount of ancient Jewish wisdom input into British thinkers like George Seldon, Milton, John Locke and also into the founders of the United States. Colonial Americans had much of this wisdom and we are honored to return it to those who shared it as part of their heritage.

  5. Good Morning Susan,
    Good subject today. Hope all is having a wonderful day. My thoughts are a little different but good to see must everyone puts God first. First of all most all surveys can have some good. A starting point or point that needs to be addressed that if not made may never get looked at. A good survey would most likely take a book of information to even get it started and by the time we understand what the survey is going to be all about, it will most in likely be out dated before we even get started. This is much like everything else for example learning and understanding the Bible or Torah takes a life time, we still never starch the surface but we continue to learn and improve. So the Truth or Facts are always changing. All information we know and understand maybe correct for today but tomorrow it maybe incorrect. And never to be looked at without the understanding of Gods Love behind it. Which is hard to find without the view of Rabbi’s and Gods people.

  6. You are right on target again. For me, the Best example of believability – or its lack – are questions asked in polls. It doesn’t matter what the poll is about. If you listen carefully, you quickly understand the questioner has a bias. The questioner asks for a simple yes or no when the person answering wants to give a more nuanced answer because of parameters the question doesn’t clearly address, but the person answering thinks it should. So the poll doesn’t really represent the opinion of the person answering but what the questioner wants him to answer. Even more interesting is the number of times when I have been the answerer and have challenged the questioner only to have the questioner terminate the poll early.

    1. You are so right about polls, Joyce. And often they aren’t really polls at all but designed to see who might be approached further for a contribution or some other service. But when you don’t see the question, you can certainly not read anything into the answers. And, yes, there is no room for nuance.

  7. I like your article! Lies and liars, deceit and deceivers have always been with us. Yet, today they come at us with the speed of the internet.

    My observation is that even the truth can be used to tell a lie when only parts of it are revealed.


    1. I want to be clear that I am not implying in the slightest that Dr. Protzko is deliberately misleading anyone. It was just a reminder to me how you really don’t know much if you only accept what you read or hear on without checking further.

  8. Miss Susan-
    You are of course correct. Our back grounds do influence our bias. But with education and experience I believe that you can, trusting in God and His word, and your interpretation of what that word is, come to the right conclusion the vast majority of the time. Rabbi Lapin may sail off an unfamiliar shore, in a boat unfamiliar to him, and due to the things he has learned and experienced, bring that sailboat safely to harbor. He will use the resources available to him , the charts, loran, maybe GPS, But it is the fact that he has faced similar situations before that will favor hin over a novice with the same maps and instruments. Each experience allows us, indeed forces us to grow, and in growing to advance and secure our future.
    You are wise Miss Susan, As the Psalmist said, speaking of a wise woman, “She is more precious than rubies: and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her.” And again,” A good woman is hard to find, and worth far more than diamonds. Her husband trusts her without reserve, and never has reason to regret it.” The Rabbi is a blessed individual Thank you for sharing your wisdom with us hoypoy.
    Bill Brower

  9. Susan,

    My wife and I are public school special education elementary teachers. We run into state policies that change like the wind. We also come across differing studies that are supposedly “empirically-based”. They also change or worse have opposing outcomes which as a teacher makes one wonder which is the best practice.

    We have found strong student-teacher relationships and consistent instruction are the best underpinnings of most of our teaching practices to best serve our students.

  10. This is exactly why we need a good RABBI and you Susan! The Bible is 100% truth, but it can be twisted by the teacher and misunderstood by the reader,

  11. I, too, aced statistics (the age of miracles hasn’t passed!). Among the things we learned were that a good study can have a bad/unjustified conclusion, and that a study’s design can obscure relevant information. “Figures lie because liars figure.” My late husband, the Philosopher, liked to say (perhaps quoting) that truth is the property of a statement, and that we should always be seeking closer approximations of truth. Truth is “what God knows” and is relative: today it is Friday; tomorrow, that is no longer true. A happy and prosperous new year to you and “our” rabbi.

    1. Deb, my statistics class was a story unto itself. I not only worked hard for my A, but I had a psychological barrier to overcome to get it. I love this, “today it is Friday; tomorrow, that is no longer true.” One of my favorite homeschooling books was, “How to Lie with Statistics,” or something to that effect.

  12. Dear Susan,
    Once again, AMEN. My dad had a saying. “Never believe any thing you hear, and only half of what you see”. Perhaps a bit over stated, but not a bad general rule when judging the words and actions of others. Don’t you think?


  13. Always question everything; what you find out may or may not be factual. Truth today is nonexistent except for the Torah.

    1. I’m afraid that’s my conclusion as well, Carol. And knowing exactly what the Torah says isn’t easy either.

  14. Mrs. Lapin, I agree with you 100%. I gave up years ago accepting “studies” and “surveys” at face value, trusting that of COURSE they must be right. After all, they are scientists! However, there have been too many that were later proved wrong, because they were poorly designed and carried out. And then there have been many—and this is increasingly a problem—which were dishonest to begin with. That is to say, some are now designed in such a way so as to provide a desired, pre-determined result, in order to advance some goal or purpose. It’s really sad to see science become politicized and corrupted, used as a tool for some organization, or to push along some individual’s career, or to get more funding.

    1. Science is terribly politicized today but there are terribly sad examples of “science” leading people to do terrible things in previous generations. At the same time, we need to move forward with new ideas and there have been wonderful ones there as well. A lot of social science is bogus, but even there some ideas that weren’t good have gone out of vogue and that’s good – for example, forcing left-handed children to write with their right hands. I think there is just a lot of onus on us to constantly go beneath the surface.

  15. Dear Miss Susan
    Always trust your gut. Jehovah gave women, especially mother’s and even more especially Jewish mother’s an amazing and unique ability to sniff out the bottom line just as they know when something is wrong with her child.
    By that same talent, or should I say instinct, you can evaluate the various pseudo facts presented by academics for the ring of truth.
    Men are not as able to apply this ability to real life situations.
    In our court system we rely on the gut feeling to, as the judge says, find the truth and find the facts from the evidence and the arguments of the lawyers.
    The point is there are lies, darn lies, and statistics.
    You can not trust anything you don’t know for a fact, and have a little doubt about what you do know.
    The only Truth is given by God. He has given you a guide and tools for life, trust them.
    Ideas change. Our views evolve. Actions that seemed honorable before are unacceptable now. But the truth is the truth. It is what do with that truth that counts.
    The marshmallow test is meaningless. It is based on the bias of the. Investigator.
    Your gut, your material instinct, your experience and education are God given gifts and are intended for you to make the most important decisions in your life.
    Another too long ramble .
    Best regards to you as and your husband.
    Bill Brower


    1. Bill, I have to disagree with part of what you say. I do think that we should trust our gut, mothers in particular. But we all have our own backgrounds and temperaments and that can lead us to have wrong instincts. We have to be able to grow as well.

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