I Was a Child Science Experiment

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Stanford University conducted a remarkable psychological study known as the Marshmallow Test. In the ’80s, the study was repeated. What did it mean to take part? Ask Real Simple Staff Health Editor Julia Edelstein.

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Photo by Photo courtesy of Julia Edelstein

Some people peak in high school. Others, in college. Me? I peaked at age 2. That’s when I completed a feat that, to this day, impresses people more than just about anything else I’ve ever accomplished. I became the prodigy of the “marshmallow experiment,” a famous psychological study on delayed gratification in children. (The expert witness on this is none other than my completely unbiased mother.)



If you’ve never heard of the marshmallow experiment, here’s a little background: Back in the late 1960s, a team of researchers at Stanford University set out to test the willpower of 4-year-olds. They placed the children in a room with a marshmallow or some other tempting confection, and told them they could eat it immediately or wait about 25 minutes and get two. After tracking the participants for decades, the researchers found that later in life those who managed to wait had fewer behavioral problems, a lower incidence of drug addiction and obesity, and higher SAT scores than the peers who inhaled their snacks immediately. (Read more about the study and about findings on patience.) So where did I come in?

Well, this experiment on patience was repeated at the Barnard Toddler Center in New York City in the 1980s, just as I enrolled in its 2-year-old program. The “interview” to get in—yes, Manhattan nursery schools require interviews—was the marshmallow experiment. At 22 months of age, I sat in a room with a one-way mirror and a table of treats for 19 minutes (at which point I got up to peer at the sweets, and then sat right back down). At 23 minutes, the director of the program turned to my mom and said she had never seen a child my age wait this long, and she couldn’t stand watching me any longer. The researchers came back into the room, I got my second marshmallow—and a family legend was born.

As Nora Ephron famously said, I remember nothing. But I do know it happened, because the center has been tracking me—and the other participants—ever since. (We’re part of something called the Barnard Toddler Study.)  Over the years, I’ve handed over information on my standardized test scores, career, and personal habits, and in college, I returned to the campus to participate in more tests. My profile generally fits the precedent for kids with a high tolerance for delayed gratification: I’ve always performed well academically (including on standardized tests), have never done illegal drugs, don’t drink to excess, and am not obese.

But am I patient? If anyone had a shot at becoming a patient adult, it had to be me—the 2-year-old who could sit quietly in the face of intense temptation. And yet as I wait for the subway each morning, I have to remind myself to stay calm and refrain from muttering curse words under my breath. When I get stuck in a long, slow checkout line, I start tapping my foot and sighing loudly—as if I think that’s actually going to help. And when I’m ready to leave for dinner out and my husband has yet to put on his shoes…well, I’m not exactly easygoing about it.

Our first baby is due at the end of July, and I worry and wonder: Will I be able to raise him to wait for that second marshmallow, or has this age of instant everything made patience an impossibility?

The best thing I can do is set a good example. And so it’s time I got back to working on myself. That is, to try meditating; deep breathing; cooking, long intricate recipes; and, yes, sitting quietly—sans smartphone—for 23 minutes.

It sounds hard, but I’m not too worried. After all, I know a 2-year-old who did it 27 years ago. And at the end, I can treat myself to a marshmallow. Or maybe even two.