The Marshmallow Test - Why Developing Willpower is So Important

In 1970, psychologists Walter Mischel and Ebbe B. Ebbesen invited a group of 4-year olds into a laboratory for what may have been the toughest test of their short lives. They sat down at a table by themselves with a delicious, tempting, marshmallow on a plate in front of them. [1]

They were told that they could eat the marshmallow if they wanted to right now, but if they could wait 15 minutes, they would be able to have 2 marshmallows. As a 4 year-old, this was painful to say the least.

Some were not able to resist the temptation and ate the marshmallow right away. The ones who attempted to hold out devised many coping strategies. They would cover their eyes with their hands or turn around so that they could not see the tray. Others would start kicking the desk, tug on their pigtails, or stroke the marshmallow as if it were a tiny stuffed animal. All in all, less than one third of the kids were able to hold out until the very end and earn their reward.  


This study was originally conducted to see at what age children begin to learn the benefits of delaying gratification. They conducted the same study with kids at 6 years old and found that they were indeed more successful in deferring gratification than the 4 year-olds. Thus proving that we become more disciplined and learn the benefits of holding out for larger rewards as we grow older. Test completed – or so they thought.

The researchers conducted a follow-up study of the original 4 year-olds that came into the laboratory when they were adolescents. The children that were able to wait for the second marshmallow were described by parents and teachers as significantly more competent than those who were unwilling to wait.

A few years later, these self-disciplined kids also scored higher on the SAT than their counterparts. Then, continuing studies showed that these kids beat their counterparts on nearly all measures of life success. They achieved more academically, had higher incomes, had better health and reported higher satisfaction in their lives.  

The ability to wait for a second marshmallow proved to be a better predictor of success than almost every other factor; including IQ, school rating or family income!


This study has been replicated multiple times by psychologists over the last 40 years with similar results. For some reason, the ability to delay the immediate gratification of a marshmallow as a 4 year-old means that you will also be able to delay the immediate gratification of video games in favor of doing homework. You will be able to delay the immediate gratification of living above your means in favor of investing your money wisely. And you will be able to delay the gratification of short-term indulgences in favor of long-term health.

So what was it that was special about these 4 year-olds? Could it be that they were born with an iron willpower as a natural talent like an ear for music or athletic ability? 

The answer is a resounding no!

These 4 year olds were actually brought up in a very different environment than the others who were not able to resist the temptation of the marshmallow. At a time when parenting books were promoting the value of self-esteem, these children were learning the value of self-control.

They had to do more chores than the other children. They were given praise and rewards only when they earned them by behaving well and getting good grades in school. Rather than simply “giving their children a trophy” the parents of these 4 year olds made them work for it. [1]

Having to earn these rewards helped develop a strong work ethic in these children over the years. Self-control works like a muscle – it gets tired from overuse, but it can also be strengthened with practice. Whether they realized it or not, these parents were raising their children to become willpower champions the same way some children are raised to become Olympic champions.  


We tend to believe that success comes from innate gifts or privileges. We believe that world class athletes, brilliant scientists, and famous actors were simply born with more talent or gifts than others. We believe that factors such as a family’s income, the neighborhood you grow up in, or the quality of schools that you attend are the most important factors in developing successful children. 

While each of these factors does play a role – if you are 5’6 it is simply going to be harder for you to become an NBA basketball player – the Marshmallow test shows that they can have less of an impact if children develop strong self-control.

To achieve anything great in life, all people must face some adversity. Regardless of how many connections you have, how smart you are, or how naturally gifted you may be, you will have to deal with setbacks. You will have to give up what you want now for what you want most, and you will have to put in hours and hours of practice in your domain. All of these things require a strong willpower. And the children who grew up practicing self-control had an advantage over all of the others; regardless of talent or privilege.


I’m guessing that most of you reading this aren’t 4 year-old children; so why does a study like this matter? Well, obviously if you have children the lessons from this study apply directly to you. It is liberating to know that other kids may have more talent, they may have more social status or be in a better school district, but developing your own kids with a strong willpower can overcome all of these obstacles!

Here are 3 exercises that have been proven to help develop willpower in kids:

1.    Chores 

Having your kids do their fair share of the household chores has been proven to be one of the best ways to help develop their willpower. Chores are boring and kids hate them. So it works their willpower to get them done.

If you add the bonus of earning a weekly allowance, it will be good practice for them to learn how to work to earn rewards. The willpower they develop from this will also help them focus on their homework assignments and learn the value of setting long-term goals. [2]

2.    Making Their Bed

Making the bed is one of the easiest ways to improve the willpower of children. To a child, making the bed seems somewhat pointless. They are probably the only one who is going to see it, so what does it matter? But an untidy bed leads to an untidy room, which can actually lead to lower willpower. [2

Whereas a made bed means that the child starts each day with a small win. They get a sense of earned accomplishment and wellbeing that can lead to even more small wins throughout the day. It may not seem like a big deal, and that is precisely the point. By teaching them the importance of getting this small detail right on a daily basis, they will learn to focus on getting other small details right in their lives as well. Over time, this will have profound effects on success in other, non-related areas of their lives. [3

3.    Large Long-term Rewards

One of the most successful cultures in raising disciplined children is the Asian American culture. Rather than offering praise and encouraging self-esteem in their children, Asian Americans preach discipline and earning long-term rewards. This has led Asian American students on average to outperform all other cultures academically. And part of the reason is due to offering large rewards for long-term achievements [4].

It is hard to stay focused on a long-term goal when there is not a clear connection on how your work today is going to move you closer to it. It requires willpower to stay on track and not lose sight of what you are working for. Offering a large long-term reward helps children practice giving up short-term pleasures in favor of working for a greater purpose. From this, not only do they achieve big things, but they also strengthen their willpower in the process. 

If you do not have children, don't worry. All 3 of these tactics have also been proven to strengthen the willpower of adults as well. In addition, you can follow any one of these other 10 simple exercises that can strengthen your willpower. Although you may be 24, 34 or 64, it is never too late to begin developing your willpower!  


The marshmallow test has revealed one of the most powerful factors in achieving life success – willpower. Being able to resist a marshmallow as a 4 year-old proved to be a better predictor of life success than IQ, family income or school prestige! This ability to delay gratification did not happen accidentally, however. The parents of the disciplined children emphasized earning rewards and praise through hard work.  

Doing things like chores, making the bed and working for long-term rewards helps kids develop willpower to take on other challenges like studying, homework and extra-curricular activities. Over time they gain skills, knowledge, and confidence from these activities that leads to success in life as well. Developing willpower is far from easy, but the marshmallow test proves that it will be worth it!


  1. Mischel, Walter, et al. "‘Willpower over the life span: decomposing self-regulation." Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (2010)

  2. Baumeister, Roy F., and John Tierney. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. New York: Penguin, 2011.

  3. Olson, Jeff, and John David. Mann. The Slight Edge. Austin, TX: Greenleaf Book Group, 2013.

  4. Chao, R., (1996): “Chinese and European American Mothers’ Beliefs about the Role of Parenting in Children’s School Success,” Journal of Cross Cultural Psychology 27: 403.