Steven Demby, Ph.D.

Clinical Psychologist-Psychoanalyst | Brooklyn, NY

Freud Meets the Marshmallow Test

You have probably heard of the marshmallow experiment.  The research was conducted in the late 1960’s and early ‘70’s by psychologist Walter Mischel, then a professor at Stanford University.  During the experiment, a child ranging in age from 3-5 years old was seated at a table.  The researcher placed a marshmallow in front of the child.  The child was told that the researcher would leave the room for fifteen minutes.  During this time, they could eat the marshmallow.  But if they could wait, and the marshmallow was still there when the researcher returned, they could have two marshmallows, not just one.   The experiment found that some of the children were unable to resist the beckoning call of the marshmallow and ate it while the researcher was out of the room.  Other children displayed the ability to resist temptation, or using the psychological term, to delay gratification.  They demonstrated “will power”, resisting short-term reward in order to achieve a delayed, but larger reward.  The researchers then followed the children in these two groups for many years obtaining data regarding SAT scores, incidence of obesity, likelihood of finishing college, and socioeconomic status among other measures.  The children who could delay eating the marshmallow were found to do better later in life on a number of these measures.  They were able to forgo short term gains, persevere, and endure frustrations, but in the end obtained larger societal rewards in academic achievement and financial status.  

This experiment beguiles us with its simplicity.  Its findings have been widely accepted into the psychological “canon” and made it into popular awareness.  And who could question it?  The findings closely align with widely accepted and deeply ingrained cultural and moral beliefs. We equate the ability to delay gratification with strength of character personality and maturity. This experiment appears to provide scientific support for our much-vaunted Protestant work ethic and its lessons which we believe important to teach our children.  The marshmallow experiment is a modern-day version of two well-known Aesop’s fables, The Tortoise and the Hare and The Grasshopper and the Ant.  The one who is in a hurry to get to the goal may appear for a while to be ahead in the “game of life”.  The one who is patient and methodical may appear to be losing the race in the near term.  In due time, the one who is patient and disciplined wins the race, while things end badly for the one in a hurry.  In many religions, it is a moral failing, and even a sin, to submit to temptation.  Think of Adam and Eve and the apple from the Tree of Knowledge.

The close alignment of the findings of this research with commonly held cultural, moral, and religious values might be enough to make us want to revisit the assumptions that underlie the conclusions.  We see that this research is based upon the assumption that delay of gratification is always a good thing and inability to delay is always a bad thing.  It contains an implicitly optimistic belief in human progress through civilization.  This is quite different from Freud’s approach to human psychology.  Freud saw the inevitably mixed, contradictory, and conflict-ridden nature of human experience.  How would he have viewed the marshmallow experiment?  In one of his last works, Civilization and its Discontents, he posits an inherent tension between our instinctual drives (of which grabbing that marshmallow now is one) and the demands of civilization that we inhibit and control our drives for the good of social stability and the maintenance of civilized society.  Freud believed this was an insoluble conflict built into human existence.  If we did not inhibit our instinctual drives, we would run afoul of the norms of civilized society; and if we did inhibit our instinctual drives, we would alienate ourselves from the vital core of our being.   In other words, Freud saw that under-control and over-control of our desires could be equally costly to our emotional well-being.   I believe that Freud would have understood the marshmallow test as presenting the children with the conflict between their drives—their strong desire for immediate physical pleasure, in this case eating the marshmallow—and the demands of civilization to restrain their desires, inhibit their impulses, delay their gratifications.    

This Freudian perspective opens up a new question about the findings of the marshmallow experiment.  Which children got more pleasure or enjoyment out of eating the marshmallow, those who grabbed the one marshmallow or those who delayed gratification and got to eat the two marshmallows later?   Significantly, the researchers did not think to measure this variable.  Were the children who were able to delay gratification for the marshmallow able to turn their impulse-inhibiting mechanism off when the time came for them to enjoy the marshmallows?  Or did it persist, leaving them to experience less pleasure when eating it?  Did they take satisfaction in the achievement of getting the two marshmallows more than the sensuous pleasure of sinking their teeth into the soft, white pillow of sweetness.   Perhaps the children who gave into temptation and popped the single marshmallow into their mouths right away got a bigger dopaminergic rush.  Perhaps, they were more able to live in the moment and be swept along by the vivid sensory marshmallow experience.  This might be more enjoyable than eating the two marshmallows after straining to delay gratification. 

Of course, I am not advocating for unrestrained impulsiveness and the overthrow of civilized restraints.  What I am saying, which I believe is consistent with a Freudian perspective, is that whatever path we take, either the path of unrestrained (or relatively unrestrained impulsiveness) or the path of inhibition and restraint, we will experience discontents, different discontents to be sure, but discontents nonetheless. 

In the office, I see patients who suffer from impulsiveness, who have difficulties with self-regulation and emotional regulation.  These patients tend to live in the moment but have difficulty following rules and foreseeing the negative consequences of their actions.  I also see patients who suffer from over-control.  These are patients who are too good at inhibiting and restraining their desires.  Such patients often complain of a lack of vitality and spontaneity in their lives.  They may suffer from chronic, mild depression.  Such patients often have an over-developed self-consciousness which makes it difficult for them to lose themselves in the moment.  While it is important for us to have the capacity to exercise self-control, it is equally important for us to stay connected to our vital core, the source of the energies that animate and enrich our lives.  While our upbringing as children and many of the lessons implicit in our schools and workplaces reinforce the value of self-restraint, psychoanalytic psychotherapy is one of the few places I know which helps to re-connect us with our desires and strengthens a vital line of inner communication with them.