Lessons from Marshmallows - How Your Reliability Makes a Difference

Kara Powell | Oct 25, 2012

In 1972, Stanford University conducted what has become the famous “Marshmallow Study”. Children sat at a table and a marshmallow was placed in front of them. They were told that if they were able to refrain from eating that marshmallow for 15 minutes, they would receive a second marshmallow.

It was a study geared to measure self-control and delayed gratification.

A team from the University of Rochester recently performed a similar study and added a new variable: whether or not children experienced a reliable environment ahead of the study. Some children were told prior to the study that they were going to receive a new art kit. Then the researcher appeared and told them that had been a mistake; there were no new art kits. That was the “unreliable” setting. Children who did receive the art kit that had been promised were those in the “reliable” environment.

Kids in that reliable environment did a better job delaying gratification in an immediately performed “Marshmallow Test”. In fact, they were able to wait four times longer.

Leaders and parents, the ramifications are obvious: do young people find us reliable? If they experience the adults in their environment as reliable, they are more likely to make wise (and tough) choices!

What makes someone reliable? In this study, it was doing what you said you were going to do. For me in my family, that means that if I say I’m going to be home at 5 pm, I am. If I say I’m going to play games after dinner with my kids, I do.

What does it mean for you to be reliable as a parent or leader?

Kara Powell

Dr. Kara Powell is the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary, and Fuller's Chief of Leadership Formation. Named by Christianity Today as one of “50 Women You Should Know,” Kara serves as a Youth and Family Strategist for Orange, and also speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara is the author or coauthor of a number of books, including Growing Young, Growing With, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family, Sticky Faith Curriculum, Can I Ask That?, Deep Justice Journeys, Deep Justice in a Broken World, Deep Ministry in a Shallow World, and the Good Sex Youth Ministry Curriculum. Kara lives with her husband Dave and their three children, Nathan, Krista, and Jessica, in Southern California.


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