The most famous, and controversial, food in developmental psychology is the marshmallow. This humble creation of sugar and gelatin was raised to fame by Walter Mischel, who many years ago plunked marshmallows in front of preschoolers and instructed them not to eat them. The immediate results, dramatized in the video below, are not exactly surprising: Children can’t resist eating the marshmallow, even with the promise of two later if they can, or struggle mightily against the lure of that fluffy white concoction.
The long-term results, now the subject of Mischel’s book “The Marshmallow Test“, are more controversial, with suggestions that whether a child can resist the marshmallow will predict their SAT scores, adult weight, and even whether they are a social success. I’ve written about the disputed power of the marshmallow before.
Today I am taking a different tack: What makes that marshmallow so irresistibly attractive to children in the first place?
When I show this video to college classes they are always vastly entertained, and have no difficulty believing that children find the marshmallow irresistible. College students themselves have no trouble resisting a marshmallow; I know, because I tried giving one batch of students the marshmallow test and discovering that they would be just find never eating a marshmallow. Some of them did, however, admit that in earlier years they absolutely adored marshmallows and would have behaved just like the children in the video. So what changed?
One possibility focuses on the fact that marshmallows are, essentially, spun sugar. Sugar in various forms, such as corn syrup, and given some substance by gelatin, but essentially sugar. And sugar has a draw to children that seems extreme even to adults with a definite sweet tooth, such as myself, as recently reported on NPR.
Children have a special relationship with sugar – and that relationship is NOT that sugar makes children hyper, because it doesn’t. Instead, children may be biologically programmed to crave sugar, so much so that sugar actually works like a pain killer for babies and young kids (although there is some skepticism about that). They have a lot of growing to do, after all, and sugar is a useful source of energy for the body to use.
Once we stop growing (taller, anyway), the usefulness of sugar declines, and so the craving lessens, and marshmallows lose their glowing attraction. Which is what makes the adult marshmallow test so hilarious in its own right. We just don’t feel the pull.