Self-Imposed Delay of Gratification Study

The following story is fiction but the facts are based upon actual 1972 research conducted at a well-known University. I remember reading about the study in a popular book and decided to fictionalize the story for a writing class I happened to be taking in 1998. The research is still occasionally referred to in scientific literature. In December, 2011 the study resurfaced again. A short article in a science magazine stated that the study continues and the preliminary findings continue to hold true. Marshmallow eaters had less successful, less happy, more tragic, and less healthy lives than those children who were able to delay their gratification.

Date: June 20, 1972

To: Faculty and students

From: Dept. of Behavioral Sciences. Contact Melanie Walters, Ph.D.  tel. # xxx-xxx-xxxx

Subject: Recruitment of volunteers for research study. Goal-Directed, Self-Imposed Delay of Gratification Study of Four-Year Old Children.

Compensation: $400 for twenty-minute test of your child. Child must like marshmallows.

This announcement was mailed to University faculty and students who had four-year old children in the campus Pre-school Program. The response was gratifying and the study was initiated and periodically reported in several journals.

Lois and John were graduate students at the University and had a four year old son, Eric, who attended the University pre-school. “ Hey Hon, take a look at this letter. What do you think?” Lois handed the letter to her husband, who read it carefully along with some additional conditions of the study. Lois and John settled back into the sofa as little Eric played on the floor at their feet.” Sounds OK to me,” John replied,” and we can sure use the money.”

A month later the study began and little Eric was one of the first kids to be tested. The plan was to interview all the tested children, their school teachers and their parents ten years later when the child graduated from grade-school, and then four years later when he/she graduated from high-school. Hopefully the researchers would be able to follow the children into adulthood. The research was funded for the lifetime of all participants.

Lois and John waited in an adjoining room as a young researcher led little Eric into the test room. The test room was small with nothing but a low table and two chairs, one chair was small in size for Eric. On one wall there was a large mirror, a special see through mirror so another researcher could videotape everything that transpired.

Eric and the researcher both sat down at the low table. The researcher took a marshmallow out of a bag and placed it on a paper plate in the middle of the table.  She asked “Eric, do you like marshmallows?” “Yeah”, Eric replied as he reached for it. The researcher was faster than Eric and intercepted his little hand. She said, “ I have to leave the room to run an errand. If you don’t eat this marshmallow, and wait until I return, I’ll give you two marshmallows.” With that she left the room leaving the four-year-old with a major temptation and a decision to ponder.

 Behavior # 1

Eric looked at the tempting morsel, which seemed to cry out to him, “Eat me, eat me, eat me!” And that’s what Eric did. In a move so fast that the video camera almost missed it, Eric’s little hand shot out to that soft white candy and then stuffed it into his mouth. The researcher returned shortly and brought Eric back to his parents. The test was all over.

Ten years later Eric finished grade school. A University researcher interviewed Eric, his parents and his school teachers. Four years later, after he had graduated high school, a researcher did he interviews again. Here are the results of those interviews. It seems that Eric had difficulties in school and at home. He had an ongoing discipline problem; he had more than his share of problems; he had numerous arguments and got into a lot of fights. Eric’s grades were well below average even though his IQ was well above average. He seldom did his homework in spite of his parent’s pressure; he easily became stressed, disorganized and he gave up quickly when challenged. Eric’s SAT scores were 210 points lower than average. Those smart jeans his Mom and Dad gave him did not seem to have helped Eric as much as one might have thought.

Eric was destined to struggle the rest of his life. The researchers followed him for forty years. They saw a continuing pattern of trouble. Eric was the father of two children out of wedlock, he divorced twice, drifted from job to job, spent some time in jail, struggled with tobacco and drug addictions, and had a drinking problem. He died prematurely from complications brought on by malnutrition and obesity, all because he popped a little white marshmallow into his mouth instead of waiting so he could have two marshmallows. Life is so cruel!

Behavior # 2

As the door closed behind the researcher, Eric’s eyes were on the tempting morsel of sweetness. It seemed to cry out “Eat me, eat me, eat me.” Eric shut his eyes and put his hands over his ears, but he still could see and hear the little marshmallow. He opened his eyes and looked again. It seemed to have doubled in size and was more tempting than ever. Eric looked around the room for a while hoping to take his mind off the treat. Then he started to sing to himself as he stared up at the ceiling. No luck, he was still thinking how good that marshmallow would taste. All he had to do was reach out and take it. He crossed his arms on the table and laid his head down. Maybe he could take a quick nap until the nice lady returned. Eric kept listening for the door to open but nothing. It seemed like an hour, but was only ten minutes. When the lady with the marshmallows returned and gave him his hard-earned reward, two marshmallows, Eric thought to himself, as he was returned to his parents, “It was worth the wait”.

Eric, his parents and teachers were interviewed after he finished grade school and high school. It seemed that Eric was well liked by every one who knew him, friends and teachers alike. He got along well at home with his family, and even completed his homework without being nagged by his parents. Eric never got stressed, kept cool under pressure; was well organized and always finished what he started. His SAT score was the second highest in his graduating class.

The University study followed Eric periodically to this day. They discovered that he did well in college and medical school. He finished his Residency and passed his Boards with flying colors. He currently has a successful medical practice and a lovely family. Eric does not smoke; drinks only socially; works out four times per week; has run three marathons and is the same weight he was in high school. All this because he waited for that second marshmallow. How sweet it is!


The ability to delay gratification, is one of the hallmarks of a high Emotional IQ. Human behaviorists believe that a high Emotional IQ is more indicative to future success in life than a high score in a standard IQ test. Emotional IQ is believed to be partly inherited and partly learned as a child. The initial behavior of four-year old children in this study appears to be related to their future success in life.

 I just got a crazy idea. Parents of three, four, and five year old children: Why not test your kids now. Who knows, it may not be too late to change their behavior and improve their chances of living more successful lives.


About cgosling

I am a retired medical/scientific illustrator and creator of patient teaching simulators, who has given up illustration to write about science, superstition, and secular humanism. I consider myself all of the following: atheist, agnostic, secular humanist, freethinker, skeptic, and nature lover. I have several published books but the mass of my writing is unpublished. I write children's fiction, poetry, essays, and several plays and radio theater shows, that are available as free downloads to be used on secular podcasts and meetings. They can be heard on Indy Freethought Radio or on YouTube “secularradiotheater”. I hope some of my writings will be of interest to like minded freethinkers who I cordially invite to respond. I am also a Darwin impersonator. I invite readers to listen to and use the Darwin script for secular purposes.
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