What is the Marshmallow Test for Adults?

Some of you are probably familiar with the famous Marshmallow Test. In the 1960s psychologist Walter Mischel designed a simple experiment to test the self-control of preschoolers.  Mischel would let the students pick from a variety of treats.  He would then tell them they could eat the treat immediately, or they could wait until he came back in a few minutes and he would give them another of their chosen treats, for a total of two.  One of the choices was marshmallows, and so the experiment has come to be known as the Marshmallow Test

To Mischel’s surprise, follow-up studies on students who participated in the Marshmallow Test show that those who were able to delay gratification long enough to get the two treats do better than those who gave in to temptation in just about every facet and stage of their lives. Does this mean that those who have not mastered self-control by preschool have no chance?  Thankfully not.  Mischel’s follow-up studies also show that learning and practicing certain techniques and skills can improve self-control, giving hope to those of us not born with an iron will. 

Mischel recently released a book called The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self Control, which reviews what science has learned about self-control since that first Marshmallow Test over 50 years ago.  I checked this book out at the library the other day and my smart and lovely 17 year-old daughter, Savannah, saw it sitting on our table.  We had discussed the Marshmallow Test before so she knew the story.  Anyway, when Miss Savannah saw the book she turned to me and asked a very interesting and provocative question that I have been thinking about ever since.  She said:

“Dad, what do you think is the Marshmallow Test for adults?”

Great question, huh? My first response was to answer, “Life”, and I am not so sure Mischel would disagree.  He notes in his book that those preschoolers who delayed gratification did better later in relationships, school, jobs, finances, marriage, and by many other measures.  In fact, Mischel calls self-control the “master aptitude”. 

In spite of the overwhelming evidence of the benefits of self-control our culture and the media often mock it. Instead, they promote the “fun” of instant gratification, but without showing the negative consequences.  The result is that modern life, with all its choices and distractions, often feels like one continuous Marshmallow Test.

My answer wasn’t bad, but not good enough. It was too general and broad, and I feel like I took the easy way out.  Savannah’s question was specific, so I feel like I owe her a specific answer.  And so I continued thinking.  Finally it came to me. 

And The Answer Is…

I believe the Marshmallow Test for adults is Saving for Retirement.  Think about it for a minute.  The preschoolers in the original Marshmallow Test were given a single marshmallow that they could turn into two marshmallows if they waited a few minutes to eat it. 

As adults we spend most of our lives earning marshmallows, but we know we can’t work forever. Each of us knows there will come a time when we can’t earn any more marshmallows, and we will have to rely on the ones we have saved.  Saving for retirement requires us to exercise the self-control to not eat all the marshmallows we earn, but to put some of the back for later.  This is essentially the same problem the preschoolers were forced to confront but with a much longer time horizon.     

In Mischel’s experiment the preschoolers were not just asked to save their marshmallow. They were told that their single marshmallow would multiply into two if they waited.  In a similar fashion, each of us has been provided the tools to create a marshmallow multiplying machine of our own.

Through investing each of the marshmallows you save can eventually become two marshmallows, then four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two….Are you taking advantage of the tools that can make this happen? Have you learned enough about investing to create an effective and efficient marshmallow multiplying machine?  Over time the multiplying of your marshmallows will seem almost magical, but first you have to create the machine and feed it with a small but consistent supply of marshmallows over many years.  Are you doing this?       

To pass the adult version of the Marshmallow Test you don’t need to become wealthy, you simply need to save one out of every ten marshmallows you earn and invest it prudently. Over the course of a lifetime this should be adequate to provide for a comfortable retirement where you don’t have to worry about running out of marshmallows.  If you wait too long to get started you might need to save two or three marshmallows out of every ten you earn.  Difficult, but not impossible. 

So how are you doing on the Adult Marshmallow Test? Are you saving at least one out of every ten marshmallows you earn?  Have you created a system that will allow the marshmallows you save to multiply?  If not, the time to start is now.  It won’t get any easier. 


I have given my opinion, now I would love to hear yours. What do you think is the adult version of the Marshmallow Test?  Savannah and I are dying to hear from you. 

Cute Video Alert

This link is to a TED Talk that explains the Marshmallow Test and also shows kids taking the test. This one is about 7 minutes long.  TED Talk Marshmallow Video 

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