Free Won’t: The Marshmallow Test Revisited

The “marshmallow test” became one of the best-known of all the scientific studies I wrote about in Emotional Intelligence; it was featured on 20/20, Oprah, and the Lehrer Report, as well as Time magazine. In this experiment four-year-olds from the Stanford University pre-school were brought to a room and sat in a chair in front of a juicy marshmallow on a table. The experimenter then told them they could eat it now, or get two if they were willing to wait until the experimenter came back from running an errand.

Now we have a better idea of exactly what part of those four-year-old brains was at work in resisting temptation or giving in. An article published August 22 in the Journal of Neuroscience [Marcel Brass at al., vol 27: pp 9141-9145] has pinpointed the brain area responsible for such feats of self-control. Whenever we get an impulse to do something, but then don’t act on it, we can thank – the dorsal fronto-median cortex — an area just above and between the eyes.

A failure in this circuitry may be at play, the researchers suspect, in disorders ranging from attention deficit to addictions. In the marshmallow test, impulse control turned out to predict how well those kids were doing 14 years later, as they were graduating high school. Those who waited, compared to those who grabbed, were more popular with their peers, had less trouble delaying gratification, and scored far higher on achievement tests.

These prefrontal circuits are among the last part of the brain to become anatomically mature; much of the increasing self-control that mark a child’s maturation over the years are the external signs that these circuits are developing as they should.

For instance, the “Terrible Twos” refers to the daily child-parent drama of impulse and its control which no doubt revolves around this circuitry. As a toddler lunges for the fragile lamp, dog’s food, paring knife — you name it – a parent’s firm “No” stands in for a fully functioning dorsal fronto-median cortex. As that circuitry matures, the “no” becomes internalized, a basis for free will, some say – or, more specifically, “free won’t,” the capacity to squelch an impulse.

By their very nature impulses come unexpectedly and unbidden, from the mind’s unconscious. But once they come, we have choice: to act on the impulse or not. The capacity to “just say no” to dangerous impulses is one mark of emotional intelligence. That’s the point of the Stoplight” in school lessons in social/emotional learning, where posters on school room walls remind kids, that when they get upset, they should remember:

  • Red light – stop, calm down, and think before you act.
  • Yellow light – think of a range of things you should do (not just your first impulse)
  • Green light – pick the best one and try it out.

Or, as the emotions expert Paul Ekman put it when I taped a conversation with him recently [], one of the key goals of psychotherapy is to “increase the gap between impulse and action.” It’s in that gap that our free won’t keeps us out of trouble.

8 thoughts on “Free Won’t: The Marshmallow Test Revisited

  1. I know I will fail that marshmallow test, because until now, at 30 years old I still lose control of myself due to sexual self stimulations(and imaginings and also guilt-ridden avoidance sometimes). But I know I can still develop my self control or self discipline to say no to my sexual impulse that is very non appropriate. This impulse sabotage my success- both in self actualization (of my dreams and wants) and my social functions(Much more, my spiritual ideals). So in a way , although I am a failure on self discipline, I am willing to try (again) the path of HOLINESS(or integrity, at least)Able, hopefully in the near future, to be consisitently saying no to all temptations to be able to say yes in God’s law of love: Loving Him above all, and loving others as myself(specially the needy)

  2. As in the article you’ve said that ADD and ADDHD could be attributed to some short circuitrty in this area of the brain, although there is positive correlation between many things in the US with the rise of ADD, what is Dr. Goleman’s opinion or what does the research indicate could be some of the causes of ADD ?

    When i was young i played chess for some time and became quite a good chess player. Although i haven’t played for quite a few years i still find i can concentrate to certain degrees as i used to be able to then. One learns to control one’s impulses to just make a move without thinking and one can then transfer this to “increasing the gap between impulses and actions” in real life.

    I’d like to raise a few questions

    Does playing chess improve our use of the dorso fronal median cortex?
    Do victims of PTSD also have less activity in the dorso frontal median cortex?
    What hobbies / sports / mental excercises create greater activity in the dorso frontal median cortex?


  3. After being a herion addict for over 30 years and constantly fighting to get that instant gratifacation, I quiver when I think of the children and the marshmellow test. After being clean for some time and going back out on a relaspe, I now cannot dispute the sense of contol, happiness serinity and a whole different sense of gratifaction when I make that instant decision to not pick up. Listening to that inner voice, which I choose to call my higher power that resides ever-so deep in my gut has changed my life and has also spoiled the excuse I chose to use that I could not quit. I feel like I have walked around most of my addicted life with my eyes always searching for the answers, blinded by the search and missing the answers that I felt.

  4. Hi, I have a question regarding the test and age of child. I recently did the equivalent test using cakes instead of marshmallows on my daughter who is 4years 5months. She looked at me as though I was insane when I explained to her the process. She said of course I will wait I really want 2 of them and sure enough she waited 10 mins without hesitation. My question is whether the extra 5 months in age makes a difference to the accuracy of the test – children at her age really develop quite dramatically, almost every day.

    With thanks

  5. This is the first I’ve heard of the marshmallow test, and I’m trying to imagine which consequence I would choose. I am an impulsive person generally (usually manifest in purchases of books or cds), but when I have a particular goal in mind, I can master concentration and resist impulsive behavior (setting aside for student loan payments instead of buying books).

    I’d be curious to know if there is any sort of equivalent impulse test for adults.

  6. when i was either 4 or 5 years old, i remembered a commercial from sustagen regarding this marshmallow test. i knew then how it works, no thanks to my constant exposure to television. anyway, i was also tested by my auntie, who was a doctor, with her son while my mom was present. it turns out that i ‘failed’ to control my urge to eat the marshmallow… while my cousin has successfully controlled himself. i saw my auntie’s reaction to his son. she was proud about the outcome. but when i looked at my mom, she just gave me a blank stare. since i understood what the test means, i thought and knew that in the future, i will not succeed in life… based on the test due to comparison. that was the day i felt the most terrible pain i had ever experienced. after that, i suffer from PTSD(private issues)… i am 29 years old. i was an unemployed nurse in a third world country. i have difficulty dealing with my feelings to other people and to myself. i keep my life be lead by what i feel and not what i think. until now i have difficulty exercising prudence to myself. because of what happened to me for the past 25 years of my ‘life,’ i am constantly plagued by my inferiority complex. i see my cousin as a role model, a dominant side. he is successful now.
    i am not blaming anyone but myself… because i let it happen. but my PTSD domestic violence and statutory rape thing… i think that reinforced my inferiority complex and paranoia. i already had consulted for 2 different psychiatrist and a priest. the priest is not helping in my case. the psychiatrists had ‘manipulated’ the treatment which gave me more harm than good.
    One thing is for sure. i am my own monster.

  7. I have read the comments and are saddened by the life experiences.
    It is very important to value yourself as an individual, not by comparing yourself to any body else. All of us would have tremendous inferiority complexes if we compared ourselves to others. I always remember a passage called Desiderata which explains this better.

    Hope life looks up for you

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