The Bing Nursery marshmallow experiments, conducted in the 1960s and now back in the news, were supposed to show that 4 year old children who are capable of deferring gratification grow up to be more successful adults. The scientist took a 4 year old into a room empty of everything except a table, a chair, a bell, and a plate with a treat on it – a treat the child had previously expressed liking for. He told the kid that she could eat the treat any time, and if she did so and wanted to leave the room she could ring the bell and he would open the door. But if she waited for 15 minutes, he would come back and give her two of the treat. The children were tracked in later life and those who were able to resist and wait tended to do better.
If you watch the videos and think for minute, you’ll see it’s full of loopholes. The main loophole for me is something I haven’t seen raised by the critics. It has to do with the fact that no matter how hard the scientists try to speak to the child neutrally, any kid can tell – like any adult can tell – that the point of the thing is to wait; the adult, without meaning to, is suggesting that waiting is a good idea. The way the children behave thus has as much to do with how well they respect authorities and structures of authority as it does with an ability to defer gratification. My conclusion: children who wish to please adults are more successful later in life.