What Marshmallow Tests Mean

I’ve written about both Alberta’s and Koala’s adventures with the marshmallow test and I’ve been thinking about what it tells us about each dog. Is Koala a “better” dog because she didn’t have to work as hard as Alberta? Is she more obedient ? (No!) More — or less — intelligent?

Dr. Walter Mischel, the psychologist who originated the test, wrote a book about it a few years ago; he also was interviewed in The Atlantic. The topic of both book and interview was some common misunderstandings about the test.

Mischel said that it is less about self-control than about achievement and making choices. It’s also, to some extent, about how and when a person (or dog) chooses to exercise self-restraint, not whether she can. Other research shows a phenomenon called willpower fatigue; exercising self-control takes cognitive energy. Using that energy on one task means you have less of it available for other tasks, whether they are cognitive tasks or exercising self-restraint.

Maybe Koala would do less well on the marshmallow test after navigating Deni through a strange airport, hotel, and restaurant than she did in the morning on her home turf.

After reading the interview with Dr. Mischel, I don’t think that the test tells us whether a dog is “good” or smart or even obedient. It tells us that training helps a dog make good decisions, and that making those decisions comes more easily to some individuals or at some times. Dr. Mischel told The Atlantic, “What we do when we get tired is heavily influenced by the self-standards we develop and that in turn is strongly influenced by the models we have.”

In other words, when we’re challenged, we fall back on our training and experience.

Alberta and Koala both had excellent training and socialization. They were also both taught the “leave it” cue. The original children tested were from affluent, educated families. These children, as well as Koala and Alberta, had some respect for and trust in authority figures (the children were tested, as were the dogs, by a familiar adult). These circumstances set up a person or dog to succeed. A random puppy pulled from a shelter pen by a stranger would likely not fare so well on the test.

That’s why it is so important to teach puppies to sit quietly, even if only for a few seconds, before they get to eat or greet someone; it’s why it’s important to ask them to wait at doorways and before jumping out of a car. Yes, we are teaching them manners and protecting their safety. We’re also giving them models and a basis to form “self-standards” that include self-restraint.

They might slip up sometimes. Cali gets so excited about meeting new people that she wriggles and dances. And when we approach the office of her friend the cookie lady, she’s a jumping, pulling, dancing demon.

It’s not just Cali. We all experience willpower fatigue. For instance when the scent of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies … mmmmm!

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