Marshmallow Experiment

Marshmallow Experiment

The twenty minutes expired. The experimenter stepped into the room. Little Lizzie was still there, sitting at the table and staring at the marshmallow.

In the staged cadence of another child, the experimenter drawled, “Great job, Lizzie. I see you haven’t eaten your marshmallow. You have more willpower than many of the children your age. That means you get two marshmallows now.”

“Thank you,” Lizzie said. “But I don’t want them.”

“Why not?” the experimenter asked. “You said you like marshmallows. You said you understood the test. Did you not understand?”

“I don’t like this test,” Lizzie said. “I had a long time to think about it while you were gone, and I don’t like it.”

“Ah. Why not?” the experimenter innocently asked.

“There’s more to things than marshmallows,” Lizzie said. “That’s what I’ve decided.”

The experimenter said, “Then you should have chosen the cookies or candy.”

Lizzie glared.

“No,” she said. “There’s more to things than marshmallows or cookies or candy. And, please, stop speaking to me as if we’re both marshmallows.”

“We’re marshmallows?”

“Yes,” Lizzie said. “Soft and airy and dainty. And fragile.”

“This is a lot, coming from a little girl,” the experimenter said. “Your mother said you’re very bright.”

“And this test isn’t close to being real,” Lizzie said.

“How is that?” the experimenter asked.

“Outside this room, there’s more than just marshmallows. And there’s toys and books and cartoons to help distract me from the marshmallow, even when I want it.”

The experimenter took some notes.

“I had a long time to think while you were gone,” Lizzie said.

“It was only 20 minutes,” the experimenter said.

“It seemed longer.”

“I noticed you were very intent” the experimenter said. “Some children get fidgety. Some sing or tell stories to themselves to distract themselves from the marshmallow. But you didn’t. You were very calm. You hardly moved.”

“I was thinking,” LIzzie said.

“About what? Marshmallows?”

“About all the ways I might play this game.”

“It’s not a game, it’s a test.”

“About all the ways I might turn this test into a game.”


“I could have licked the marshmallow for the time, but never eaten it. Then, I could have gotten two, since I still never ate it.”

“You’re very clever.”

“Or, I could have eaten it, then convinced myself you lied. Or convinced myself it wasn’t my fault.”

“Yes. Very clever,” the experimenter said.

“Or I could have torn it into bits. And eaten a few of the bits. You never said anything about tearing it apart. It would be impossible to put it back together to know some was missing, unless you were spying on me.”

“We were spying.”

“Yes. I knew that. But I still wouldn’t have done it. I don’t want one or two marshmallows. I don’t want marshmallows.”

“We can’t offer you candy or cookies now since you might have pretended to like marshmallows so you could get to cookies or candy at the end. Other clever children have done that. We’ve caught on. But we can run the test again, the next time with either cookies or candy.”

“No,” Lizzie said. “I’m finished playing.”

“You’re finished being tested, since it’s a test.”

“No,” Lizzie said. “I’m finished playing.”

“It’s not a game,” the experimenter insisted. “It’s an experiment.”

“Then I’m finished playing your experiment. Can I see my mother now?”

The experimenter opened the door. She called Lizzie’s mother in.

“How’d she do?”

“She passed,” the experimentor said. “Sort of.”

“I told you she’s a stubborn girl.”

“Yes. I can see that,” the experimentor said. “Very stubborn. And very smart.”

Seeing the marshmallow still on the plate, her mother asked, “You didn’t want the marshmallows?”

“No,” Lizzie said.

“It’s okay,” her mother said. “Maybe next time.”

Before Lizzie could interject there’d be no next time, the experimenter said, “Lizzie talked about books. Books as distractions. We’ve got some books on marshmallows. Story books. You can take a few with you. It might help with the test next time.”

“How’s that sound, Lizzie?” her mother asked. “Some story books on marshmallows to take home until next time?”

“No,” Lizzie said.

“We’ve got cartoon videos of marshmallows. Does that appeal to you?” the experimenter asked. “We’ve even got comic books for children slightly older than you.”

“Do you have story books and cartoons on candy and cookies too?” Lizzie asked.

“Of course.”

“Do you have books on marshmallows and candy and cookies? A story book or cartoons about them all?”

“All together? No. That’s a bit much for children,” the experimenter said. “We find that marshmallows are enough for now. Unless you’ve changed your mind. It’s not too late to change your mind for next time.”

“I’ve made up my mind,” Lizzie said. “I already told you.”

The experimenter looked at her notes quizzically.

“I didn’t jot it down. So, is it still marshmallows? Or is it cookies or candy now? You don’t have to choose now. You can choose next time we administer the test.”

“I told you, it’s none of them. I told you I’m done playing.”

“Testing,” the experimenter corrected.

Lizzie looked at her mother pleadingly.

In betrayal, her mother added, “Experimenting.”

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