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!

Koala’s Marshmallow Test

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Koala, Deni’s current guide dog, is an exuberant dog; she has greeted me so enthusiastically that I emerge bruised. When she finds Deni a trash can to dump her poop, Koala leaps up and embraces the can, entire body wagging. So I was skeptical that she’d do well on the marshmallow test.

The marshmallow test is a test of self-restraint. The original test pitted preschoolers against marshmallows: If the child, unsupervised, could hold off on eating a marshmallow for 15 minutes, the researcher would reward the child with a second marshmallow. Children who waited, rather than eating the marshmallow with which they were left alone, were found, as adults, to have achieved greater success according to a variety of measures: higher SAT scores and greater academic achievement, more likely to have saved for retirement, etc.

Alberta, Deni’s previous guide dog, as you might recall, did very well on the marshmallow test. She clearly worked to distract herself from the treats, employing some of the methods the children did: she turned away, closed her eyes, raised her head and closed her eyes. Some of the kids sang or hummed; Alberta raising her head to smell something other than the treats is probably the doggie equivalent.

Alberta is, in many ways, a less exuberant and more restrained dog than Koala. So, I did not expect Koala to fare as well on this test of self-restraint.

Deni set up Koala’s test just has she had Alberta’s. A bowl of dog cookies was placed in the quiet hallway outside Deni’s office; Koala, dressed in her guide harness, sat in front of the bowl. Deni told her to “leave it,” then Deni went into the office and closed the door. Koala was alone in the hallway, but Deni, and a student photographer watched through the window blinds. Koala could not see Deni.

While Deni and the student were setting up the test, filling Koala’s bowl with treats, Koala — in harness — leapt and bounced around them in excitement. The student commented that she did not think the test would end well for Koala.

So, how did she do?

As Alberta had, Koala first leaned in and sniffed the cookies. She sat back up. And sat there. Unlike Alberta, she sat and stared at the bowl, salivating a bit. That’s it. She did not have to distract herself, she did not look away, close her eyes, or sing to herself. She aced the test.

I might need to point out: Both girls are Labradors who love their food and adore cookies.

Why was the test easier for Koala? Both girls were able to fight temptation and exercise self-restraint. What’s her secret? I’d love to say that her analytical nature is the key, but being very analytical myself has never helped much in the face of a chocolate-chip cookie.

Is Koala simply on a higher ethical plane than Alberta is (or I am)? That is the question that Deni is now asking: Is Alberta more ethical for having overcome a struggle to exercise restraint? Or is Koala more ethical for being easily able to do the right thing? Deni asks her philosophy students the same question about people.

We may never have an answer to that. What we do learn from this test, though, is that a dog’s behavior is not evidence that that dog can (or cannot) learn to “behave” —exercise self-restraint — in other circumstances. Koala, for example, plays tug to win, big time. She’d rip your arms out of their sockets if you let her. But her ability to “leave it” shows that, with practice and reinforcement, she could exercise that same restraint in other areas.

For other dogs and people, that translates to not giving up on a dog who has some uncontrolled behavior; it’s likely that, with some coaching, time, and practice, that dog, too, can pass his own marshmallow test. Now I am curious about Cali …