Delayed Gratification Is Overrated: The Untold Marshmallow Story

The surprising story from the famous Stanford marshmallow experiments that changed my thinking about delayed gratification.

Updated:

I’ve read of Walter Mischel’s Stanford marshmallow experiments so many times by now that it almost makes me not want to eat marshmallows again.

But until recently I had never heard the extraordinary story of one of the study’s subjects, Cedar Pope. I can’t believe it hasn’t got more attention.

Cedar delayed gratification longer than any other participant in the marshmallow experiments.

Waaaaay longer.

Nearly 2 million times longer.

His story got me rethinking the merits of delayed gratification.

It also made me wonder, What use to me are the findings of studies like the marshmallow experiments that average out the behavior of hundreds of people? [See The End of Average by Todd Rose for more on the latter.]

The Boy Who Saved His Marshmallows for Later

1968: The Experiment

As soon as the door opened wide enough for his plump little body to squeeze through, the 3.5-year-old boy sprinted out and toward his mom.

“MARSHMALLOOOOOOOOOW!!!”

That’s it? The boy’s mom smiled, shook her head, and rolled her eyes. He was barely in there for a minute. She looked toward Walter Mischel, the Stanford psychologist running the experiment, as he followed the boy out the room.

“Reed’s finished, ma’am.” Mischel hid a smile behind his clipboard. “Thank you for bringing him in to participate.”

Sigh. “Ok. Let’s go Reed. Say bye to Cedar.”

The cheerful chubby boy turned to the other mother and son in the room, “Bye-bye Ceed-y.”

“Bye Reed.”

Mischel flipped a page on his clipboard and looked over. “Cedar Pope?”

A polite nod from the boy, also around 3.5 years old, but significantly smaller.

“Nice to meet you. I’m Walter. Come with me, son.”

Mischel guided the boy into the room, had Cedar sit at a small table, then served him a plate with a single marshmallow on it. “This is for you. Eat it now if you’d like. But you can wait fifteen, minutes, I’ll give you a second marshmallow. Understand?”

“Yessir.”

“I’ll be outside with your mom. If you need anything, just knock.” Mischel left Cedar and the marshmallow alone in the room.

Cedar felt his mouth filling with saliva. He had never tasted a marshmallow before. Based on his neighbor Reed’s reaction, they must be super duper yummy.

“Save for later, savor greater,” his mom’s mantra sang in his mind. “Save for later, savor greater.” Cedar repeated the rhyme in his head over and over as he picked up the marshmallow, inspected it from all angles, sniffed it, squeezed it, and even licked it. But he didn’t bite.

Cedar was so focused that Mischel startled him as he reentered the room. Mischel offered the boy a plate with a second marshmallow. “Here you go, son!”

Cedar plucked it off with a polite “Thank you, sir.” He inspected the marshmallow in the same way as the first. Then Cedar did something unlike any of the 653 other children in Mischel’s experiments: 

He put the two marshmallows in his pocket. 

1990: The Follow-Up

“Please come in.” Cedar’s mom opened her Palo Alto home’s front door for the researcher from Walter Mischel’s team. “Would you like some tea? Water.”

“Water would be great, thanks.”

“Cedar! The lady from Stanford’s here. Come down please.”

Cedar, now 25 years old, put down his textbook and came down from his room.

“Hello Cedar. I’m Sandra, a PhD student from Stanford Psychology. Ready for our interview?”

“Yes ma’am.”

Cedar filled Sandra in on his 22 years since the marshmallow experiment.

  • Graduated high school third in his class, then got his Actuarial Sciences degree from Stanford in three years by taking summer classes. Just last month, he completed his graduate degree and got into the PhD program.
  • Elected treasurer in high school after losing the class president race to Reed McGee “He participated in this study, too, as I recall.”
  • Placed fifteenth at the state cross country championship in high school and continues to run regularly.
  • Accumulated about $30k in savings by living with his parents and being exceptionally careful with his spending.

Sandra noted that Cedar was the epitome of what her and the rest of Walter Mischel’s team were discovering through these follow-up interviews: Children who were able to wait for the second marshmallow tended to have better life outcomes measured by various parameters like academic success and physical health. She told this to Cedar as they wrapped up the interview.

“Save for later, savor later,” Cedar whispered.

“Pardon me?”

“Save for later, savor later. It’s kind of my mantra,”

“Well you’re certainly succeeding at it.” This made Cedar beam with pride. “Thanks for your time, Cedar.”

As Sandra was putting on her jacket, Cedar felt compelled to mention, “You know, I still have never eaten a marshmallow. No Lucky Charms. No s’mores. Nothing.”

“Never? What about the two marshmallows from the experiment?”

“Nope. I kept them.”

Kept them? What do you mean?”

“I still have the marshmallows in my room.”

Sandra abruptly stopped zipping her jacket “You wha…?!? How? Where? Can I see them?”

June 2023: The Reunion

Cedar closed the door of 2006 Prius and made his way to the entrance to the Palo Alto High School auditorium decorated by a flashy banner, “Welcome Class of ‘83!”

Why waste money on such a fancy banner just for a silly 40-year high school reunion?, the now 58-year-old thought to himself.

“Cedar? Cedar Pope!” Reed McGee stood with his wife at the entrance, greeting arrivals with a tray of champagne flutes.

“Hi Reed. Hi Rhonda.”

“Welcome, Marshmallow Fellow!” Dozens from their class had participated in Mischel’s experiments and called themselves that.

Reed’s looking more and more like a marshmallow, Cedar joked to himself as he shook the big man’s hand. “Thanks for organizing, Reed.”

“My absolute pleasure. What’s new and exciting?” Reed’s tone was genuinely friendly, but Cedar wondered is he was being condescending.

“Y’know. The usual. Insurance industry’s as fun as ever.”

“Glad to hear it. Well let’s keep those good times rolling tonight. Champagne? It’s 1983 vintage.” Reed winked.

“Thanks, but I don’t drink.”

Cedar had a surprisingly great time at the reunion—more fun that he’d had in ages. Reed spiced thing up with activities, surprises, and conversation starters. Among the latter, “What’s one secret from high school you don’t mind sharing now?”

Feeling unusually loose, Cedar revealed something he’d never told any of his classmates: “I kept my marshmallows from the marshmallow experiment. Still have them at home.”

This sparked a minor uproar and became the talk of the party. Word continued to spread outside the high school auditorium’s walls in the following days and weeks.

October 2023: The $3 Million Sale

Ring ring.

Cedar’s caller ID told him it was the Sotheby’s agent. He unplugged his iPhone 8 from the wall to answer.

“Hi Sam.” Butterflies in Cedar’s stomach.

“Hi Cedar. Just wanted to call you to deliver the news personally. As you know, the auction was tod—”

“How much?” Cedar’s put his extraordinary patience on hold this one time.

“$3 million.”

“Wow.” Cedar needed to calm his emotions. “One minute please.”

“Of course.”

Cedar took a deep breath and pulled up the calculator on his phone. Last he checked, a bag of marshmallows costs $2. Each bag has maybe fifty marshmallows, so two would cost about 8 cents. 1968 was 55 years ago. That meant he’d earned a 37.3% annual rate of return!

Save for later, savor greater.

This windfall got Cedar to his target $10 million “freedom number.” Now, at age 58, he felt comfortable enough to retire. What now? Travel? Take up a new hobby?

“You still there, Cedar?”

“Yeah. Thanks for calling. And thanks for making this happen.”

“Of course. Congrats.”

“Would you be able to tell me who bought them?”

“I’d have to ask the buyer if they’d mind. I suspect they won’t, though.”

“Ok. Thanks.”

To celebrate, Cedar went out and bought a $21 bag of artisanal marshmallows. He savored them all in less than fifteen minutes.

Marshmallows became his favorite indulgence.

December 2023: The Last Surprise

One of Reed’s staff entered the living room holding a couple steaming mugs on a tray.

“Ah, here we go! I had my chef prepare the world’s best hot chocolate, topped by your favorite marshmallows.” Reed told Cedar. “Yours is alcohol-free and low sugar. I couldn’t resist but add some 55-year-old whisky to mine to celebrate the occasion.”

“Thanks. Glad we could find the time to get together.” Cedar admired the stormy ocean views through the floor-to-ceiling windows of Reed’s living room. “Your home is beautiful.”

“Who would have thought we’d end up here like this, together, all these years later.”

“Walter Mischel would be surprised.”

“Ha, yeah.” Reed cheersed Cedar’s mug. “When’s the next follow-up, right?”

Cedar chuckled.

Reed sipped his boozy hot chocolate and whispered conspiratorially, “Wanna know something I never told to anyone from Mischel’s team, nor anyone else?”

“Sure. I’m pretty good at keeping secrets.”

“Ha! It’s no secret. I just never thought to tell anyone until now.”

“Ah. Ok.”

“You know how I scarfed down my marshmallow faster than any other kid in the experiment?”

“Of course. I was there.”

“Well, on my way home, I sweet-talked my mom into buying me a whole bag!”

“You gotta be kidding.” Cedar pretended to be amused, but this revelation shook him. What about save for later, savor greater? Reed seemed to always manage to savor now, and savor more later. It wasn’t fair.

To hide the emotion he couldn’t mask anymore, Cedar stood up and walked across the room, pretending to be interested in a closer look at the display of his, now Reed’s, old marshmallows.

As he neared, Cedar could read the engraving below:

“You can have your marshmallows and eat them, too.”

About the author

👋 I'm Chris. Everything you read on TheZag.com is my fault. This site is like a gym for your comfort zone, full of challenges to make your status quo sexier. Join my 'Consider This' newsletter for a fun new challenge every 10 days. Try it!

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