Marshmallow test of self-control

7 tactics to help children develop self-control

The benefits of developing self-control

Who would have thought that having the self-control to not eat one marshmallow in order to receive a second could have such a profound effect on someone’s life? The results of the marshmallow test turned out to predict much about the participant’s future lives. The more seconds they were able to wait for the treat aged 4-5, the higher their test scores at school and the better the social and cognitive functioning in adolescence. 

When these subjects were aged 27-32, those who had waited longer in the marshmallow test all those years ago had:-

  • Had a significantly lower body mass index
  • Used risky drugs less
  • Had a high sense of self-worth
  • Perused their goals most effectively
  • Reached higher educational levels
  • Coped better with frustration and stress
  • Enjoyed better quality close relationships

The same research was completed with different demographics and in different countries with the same results. The ability to delay gratification did improve with age, as did the number of strategies they employed but the results were the same.

The origins of the Marshmallow Test

The marshmallow test is famous but didn’t start as a test. It was created to help psychologist  Walter Mischel better understand his daughters (aged 3, 4 and 5) in the early 1960s. He wanted to understand how his impulsive, complicated and difficult daughters with little self-control developed over time. 

In the 1960s this was the height of behaviourism and to be researching what goes on in the brain was almost akin to witchcraft. The challenge was to find a way to study this scientifically to understand what would enable children to develop the ability to delay gratification and make a decision taking future consequences into account. 

Boy performing the marshmallow test of self-control

Testing self-control

The first part of the experiment was to build trust with the child so that the subject trusted that the person carrying out the experiment would deliver on their promises. Not Including this part in the process, the lack of trust could have skewed the results. In fact, previous research had already shown that children that consistently experience broken promises from adults will often not delay if a reward is offered upfront.

Before the experiment started, the child would choose their favourite treat. This included things like cookies, M&Ms, pretzels and marshmallows. They would then be given one treat and told that if they waited until the researcher came back (up to 20 minutes), they could have a second. As the reward needed to be desirable to be able to measure the ability to delay gratification, letting the child choose their reward was an important part of the methodology.

Marshmallow test observations

If you asked a 4 year old if they should cover the treat or not, most would suggest not and then proceed to ring the bell and eat the treat. By the age of 5, they understand that it’s better if it’s covered to hide temptation. This is one of the coping mechanisms children can use to delay gratification. Interestingly it can also work the other way if it’s something they want but don’t yet have. For more information on the psychological stages of development, please check out last weeks article.

The relationship between knowledge and action is complicated. If you ran the same experiment and asked the child ‘Would an intelligent child wait for the two or eat the one now’, they would say the intelligent child would wait but this would have no effect on their decision to eat the single treat now. Knowledge is not the same as understanding.

While running the experiment with marshmallows, they also had a test group that had a photo of the marshmallows rather than the marshmallows themselves. What they found in this scenario is that the bell ringing happened much faster when the actual reward was sat in front of the child whereas only seeing the photo of the marshmallows had the opposite effect and enabled them to actually wait longer. When some children were taught how to imagine a picture frame around the marshmallows, this process actually enabled them to wait longer too.

The children that are able to self-regulate by the age of 5 or 6 have a much better chance of doing well at school and thriving as adolescents. Will power and self-control are cognitive skills are teachable to not only children but adults too. There are simple strategies to help regulate our emotions and resistance to temptations. This allows us to take future consequences into account when making decisions in the moment. 

Hot vs cold triggers

In the experiment, the children prompted to focus on the cold (non-emotional) features of the treat lasted twice as long as the ones that focused on the hot features (emotional). This is similar to the research carried out by Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman that suggested that people use two different systems to make choices, system 1 and system 2. System 1 thinking is fast, impulsive and operates automatically (about 98% of our decision making) whereas system 2 was the slow thinking system that takes conscious, deliberate effort (about 2% of our decision making).

If the children focused on thinking about fun things, they lasted almost 3 times as long as those prompted to focus on sad feelings. Giving children compliments can also lead them to delay gratification more than giving them negative feedback. We are much less likely to delay gratification when we feel sad. Most children didn’t fully understand the difference between hot and cold thoughts until they were around 12 years old.

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Tactics for delaying gratification

You could show great self-control in one area but not in another. Will power is not a generalised trait that you have or don’t have but can vary depending on stress levels and mental fatigue. There are tactics that can be taught to children to help them develop the ability to delay gratification.

1. Avoid the temptation

Some of the observations during the marshmallow test were that some of the children simply avoided the temptation by pushing the marshmallows to the other side of the table. The closer they were to marshmallow (in some cases smelling, licking and nibbling distance), the bigger the temptation. The children that turned away from temptation, covered their eyes or covered the treat were able to last up to 10 times longer. This is the simplest and the most obvious of the tactics used by the children and while coving your eyes may not always be practice in a martial arts class, children can always choose to move away from temptation. If a child often gets drawn into misbehaving in your class, the application of this tactic could be as easy as the child asking to be moved to a different group.

2. Positive distraction

Many of the children during the test created imaginative ways to keep themselves distracted. This included taking their shoes off and playing with their toes, inventing songs and singing aloud and even having conversations with themselves. In the experiments where it was suggested that the children make up their own fun game, they lasted about 10 times longer. On the flip side, suggesting that the children think about how the marshmallow would feel and taste when they could eventually eat it resulted in these children eating it almost immediately. In one of the experiments, the children had a slinky spring they could play with. In this scenario, the majority of the children lasted 15 minutes. Occasionally we get parents that are late to collect their child after their class finishes, asking the child if they can create a way a way to keep themselves occupied while they wait is a great teachable moment.

3. Reframe the temptation

Another tactic taught to the children was to suggest that they put an imaginary frame around the treat and pretend that it was just a picture and not real. This in effect triggers cool thoughts towards the treat rather than the hot thoughts that were created when the children were actively thinking about the smell, taste and feel of the marshmallow. Using this method alone was enough to take a child’s resistance from 30 seconds to 10-15 minutes. Children at home could use this tactic to form a frame around their desert while they focused on finishing their main meal.

4. Recognise stress and mental fatigue

Similar to adults, stress reduces children’s ability to make ‘good’ choices. This is also the same when children have been working on problems that take a lot of mental bandwidth. Thinking is very energy intensive and making decision that takes a lot of consideration and this can deplete their ability to connect actions with outcomes. Although your brain is only 2% of your body weight, it burns around 20% of the energy you consume. As suggested earlier in this article, this is why we tend to do most of the thinking using the impulsive system 1 rather than the slower but more thoughtful system 2. To help reduce mental fatigue, make sure your sessions have a few timely, short breaks. Not only is this good for the brain, it also helps the children build social connections at the club.

5. Consistently reward instances of self-control

When Celeste Kidd and her team remade the experiment in 2012, they added an extra twist. Some of the children were placed in a reliable environment and the others in an unreliable environment. In all cases when the researcher failed to carry out the actions she had described, the children would fail the marshmallow test almost immediately. While trust may not be a tactic implemented by the child to help them delay gratification, the research suggests that a lack of trust may damage the child’s future ability to resist temptation.

6. Model self control

The influence that parents and coaches have on young children should never be underestimated. Many personality traits are developed as a result of the environment rather than the genes of a child. When an adult describes one way of behaving but then demonstrates another, the incongruency creates a disconnect and often the child ends up following the example rather than the instruction of how to act. If as a martial arts coach, you ask that your students take their shoes and socks off before they step on the mats but you never do, don’t be surprised if they follow your example. As martial arts coaches, I feel we need to hold ourselves to account. We all want the best for our students but to accomplish this we need to ‘walk the walk’ as well as ‘talking the talk’.

7. Remind them of the goal

It’s hard to resist temptation if you can remember what you are trying to achieve. Take the time to provide reminders of the goal you are trying to achieve, such as practising a technique on the pads or trying to jump over an object sideways. What is the best way to confirm understanding? Asking questions and giving them time to think and implement. Parents that over control their toddlers, risk undermining the development of the child’s self-control skills, while those that support and encourage autonomy and problem-solving are likely to maximise their development of self-control. Coaches also need to be mindful of this and use questioning more than specific direction.


Why are the findings of the Marshmallow Test important to the development of children in our martial arts classes? Self-control has long been one of the main reasons that parents bring their sons and daughters to us in the first place. Having the ability to delay gratification is a skill they need to develop for long term growth not just in the pursuit of their black belt, but in achieving their life goals and building healthy relationships.

If we are to deliver the benefits that we advertise on our marketing materials, we need to make sure we are teaching the children ways they can self-regulate. This will ultimately help them build great habits and hopefully help them live their life on purpose rather than just reacting to everything going on around them. Every time the children stretch their ‘self-control legs’, the ability to replicate this behaviour improves.  

In a world where obesity and inactivity are on the increase and everyone walks around glued to their electronic devices, the need to learn the skill of self-control from a young age has never been as important. Build some of the tactics we have listed in this article and by all means, go out and research this subject area some more. A great place to start would be read Walter Mischel’s book ‘The Marshmallow Test’.

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