E.Q., I.Q., or G.Q.?
The Great Marshmallow Experiment
Can the way a little kid responds to marshmallows predict his future success?
My mother was the first to tell me about an experiment that has recently gained quite a bit of media exposure. She had read about it in an article about "emotional I.Q.". She explained: "The experiment started in the 60's. They took a bunch of preschool kids and handed each one a marshmallow. The researcher said that if the kid would wait 20 minutes--while the researcher left the room--to eat the marshmallow, then he would get two marshmallows. The interesting thing is that they followed up on these kids and found out that the ones who waited turned out to be much better able to delay gratification and achieve their goals as teenagers and young adults."
Right away I knew I wanted to conduct a similar experiment of my own. I began running the same test on every little kid I knew...but I immediately hit some unexpected snags.
"I don't like marshmallows. They're yucky," one tot informed me, handing it back to me with a disgusted look on his face. This posed a scientific dilemma: would the results be skewed if I offered him an alternative? Would I have to offer everyone else the exact same thing?
"My mother won't let me eat sweets before lunch," another objected. "I could eat an apple, maybe--or a slice of toast," the child offered helpfully.
The next child informed me that marshmallows contained refined sugars and were thus taboo.
One little tyke grew quite alarmed when I handed him the marshmallow. "But it's not mealtime!" he gasped. "My parents insist that I eat three meals a day, just like the rest of the world. And snacking is not in the schedule." He seemed rather surprised that I did not know this.
Yet another said she was allergic to some ingredient in store-bought marshmallows and could eat only those that were homemade.
The son of a La Leche League Leader studied the marshmallow carefully, with a puzzled look on his face, before offering a polite, "No, thank you." He explained, "This doesn't look like something from the Whole Foods cookbook."
I was about to scrap the experiment when I finally found a child who would agree to eat a marshmallow. "But I don't want two of them," she said. "That would be greedy. Maybe you could give my other marshmallow to someone else." Muttering about "die Jugend von heute" under my breath (and sounding rather like my stodgy old college German professor) I set off in search of more young subjects.
Little Buford seemed promising. He liked marshmallows. In fact, he informed me that he really, really liked them, but could never seem to get enough of them. His eyes lit up as I explained the part about waiting 20 minutes and getting two marshmallows. "I get it! I get it!" he almost shouted with enthusiasm. He spent the entire 20 minutes with a smile on his face, gazing at the marshmallow on the table in front of him and licking his lips in happy anticipation. I expected him to gobble those marshmallows when I handed him the second one, but he shocked me with his response.
"Now," he announced in a firm but happy voice, "I will wait 20 more minutes so I will get another marshmallow. Then I will wait 20 more minutes and get four marshmallows."
"Um, Buford," I protested weakly, "the deal was that you would wait 20 minutes and I'd give you another marshmallow. I gave it to you. You did great. Now I think you should go home."
"No," he said with a smile. "I've decided to wait here 'til tomorrow so I can have the whole bag all to myself."
"I'm sorry, Buford, but it doesn't work that way."
Good question. "Um...I'm sure your Mom will start missing you and want you to come home."
"No, she won't."
I was beginning to believe him.
Little Buford crossed his arms over his chest, leaned back in his chair, and started humming tunelessly to himself, no doubt daydreaming about an entire bag of marshmallows. "This is great," he said. "A whole bag of marshmallows! And I won't have to share!"
"Buford," I said firmly in my best no-nonsense voice. "I am not going to give you a whole bag of marshmallows. You really need to go home now."
Buford answered just as firmly, "Yes, you will. It's only fair. I'll wait right here until tomorrow and you'll give me the whole bag of marshmallows."
I decided that he would soon tire of his game, so I left the room. Two hours later, he hadn't moved. The two marshmallows were still untouched in front of him. I was growing alarmed and called his mother. She sighed when I described the situation to her. "We have two choices," she said. "Either he sits there until tomorrow and you give him the bag of marshmallows--or my husband and I come over and physically remove him." I opted for the latter. It was not a pretty sight. Finally I concluded my experiment. Of course I'll have to wait twenty or thirty years before all the results are in, but I have some predictions.
The anti-marshmallow child will convert once he tastes marshmallows floating in hot chocolate.
The child whose mother restricted sweets to afternoons will suffer great pangs of guilt when he unthinkingly eats a donut at work one morning.
The anti-refined-sugar child will hit the lecture circuit, preaching out against the evils of all sweeteners but honey.
The scheduled child will never quite recover from the shocking discovery that the rest of the world does not all eat three meals a day. He will propose the theory that Nazism stemmed from the German traditions of a "second breakfast" and afternoon cake and coffee...and that high tea brought about the decline of the British empire.
The allergic child will unintentionally distress all her well-meaning friends who won't invite her to dinner parties for fear of accidentally sending her into anaphylactic shock.
The son of the La Leche League leader will seek out and marry a young woman whose mother also used the Whole Foods cookbook. Together they will open a combination health food store/lactation clinic/whole foods restaurant.
The non-greedy child will either join the Peace Corps or become a devoted wife and mother who always shares her dessert.
And Buford? I have no doubt that he will be wildly successful someday--and extremely, extremely rich. His greed is matched only by his patient persistence...or stubbornness, whichever the case may be...