The Marshmallow Test: Squishy on Intelligence, but How About ADHD?

How long could you wait?

I first read about the Marshmallow Test in The New Yorker.  My husband had told me about the article, he wanted to prepare me for the dire predictions it held for impulsive kids.

The story went like this: When siblings were tested, the 4-year-old sibling who could sit in a room with a marshmallow for 15 minutes without eating it received not only a second marshmallow but the inference that she would succeed in life.  The sibling who couldn’t wait, well he’d have a lot more trouble. (Note: I choose my pronouns carefully.)

But there was more than just anecdotal evidence of the lifelong cascade of benefits that comes from waiting for treats. Yes, there were numbers.

Numbers like a kid who could wait would score 215 points higher on the SATs than those who couldn’t.  These were kids who could stick with a problem and solve it. A child who could wait would not only would perform well on an intelligence test, but persevere in life. My own son wouldn’t even last 30 seconds in a room with a marshmallow. So it was with some relief and little surprise that I read that the marshmallow test isn’t actually a great predictor of future testing success. Until I got to the part about ADHD.

As Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman wrote, and Andrew Dalton reported, the original marshmallow studied conducted by Walter Mischel in the 1960s tested 550 kids. Only 35 of those kids — 17 girls and 18 boys — were tracked.  That’s a pretty small number for a pretty big claim.

More to the point, the classic marshmallow experiment was repeated at the Barnard Toddler Center in the early 1990s with cookies by Inge Marie-Eigsti of the University of Connecticut. Eigsti’s team retested participants when they were 18.  Instead of using SATs, she administered IQ tests. The results? There was zero correlation between the ability to wait for a cookie at 4 and IQ or self-control at 18.

But, Bronson and Merryman write:

“Like Mischel, Eigsti had a handful of kids — five — who ate the cookie in under a minute. But these kids also were noted to demonstrate a lot of the symptomology of ADHD. Which could mean that the famous Marshmallow Task is just another way to identify kids with ADHD.”

On the one hand, I would say that the marshmallow test would be a lot more fun for my son than a lot of the other tests he went through in a recent ADHD assessment.  (My daughter would enjoy it, too.) On the other, when can we stop coming up with tests that try to figure out how typical kids will turn out?

What do you think about the marshmallow test?  When is information from tests like this useful?

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