Advertising companies are always trying to squeeze scientific content into their adverts, whether it is complex ingredients in fancy make-up products or consumer psychology. Last week I saw the new Haribo Starmix advert for the first time, and I wasn’t impressed.

The advert shows young children being given a single Haribo sweet, but they have been told that if they can resist eating the sweet they will get a second one as a reward. The children are not very successful, resorting to licking or sniffing the sweets, and even talking to their own hands to avoid temptation. Not a single child manages to resist the sweets, concluding that “Haribo is just too good”.

The advert is actually based on a very famous Marshmallow Experiment conducted by Walter Mischel in 1972 at Stanford University, California. Mischel gave children a single marshmallow (or oreo or pretzel), and told them that if they could resist eating it for fifteen minutes, they would receive another as a reward. He was trying to understand how the concept of “deferred gratification” develops in young children, and how it would affect them in their later lives. Similar to the children in the Haribo advert, these children would cover their eyes, sit on their hands, and even turn around, just so that they couldn’t get at the sweets. A very cute reproduction of the experiment can be seen here.

More than 600 children from the nursery at Stanford University took part in this experiment, with only a minority eating the sweet straight away. Out of those that managed to resist, only one third managed to wait the full fifteen minutes to get their second sweet.

The best part of the experiment, however, came from the follow up, which is something that the Haribo advert missed. Mischel conducted several follow-up experiments many years later when the children had all grown up. What he found was that those who were able to delay their gratification had, on average, much higher S.A.T. scores. Those who were unable to wait fifteen minutes were described as much less competent, and were more likely to have behavioural problems as they got older. There is a great article here about the experiment.

Mischen had shown that the ability to delay gratification was highly correlated with how old the children were. Younger children hadn’t developed an understanding of what delayed gratification could bring, they were only thinking of the short term winnings that they were able to gain. Yet, we still see things like this happening in “grown-ups”. There are many of us who are impatient whether it is at work, where we want to see immediate results and mostly look at short-term goals, or at home.

Even forty years after the initial experiment, Mischen is still tracking his subjects. With advancing technologies, he is now able to take scans and see the activity within the relevant parts of the brain associated with gratification. In one of the experiments two important differences in brain activity was found between those who were low delayers (couldn’t resist the marshmallow) and the high delayers (those that did manage to resist). What they saw was that the high delayers had much more activity within the part of the brain that helps to control impulses and suppresses unwanted behaviour. The differences showed that the high delayers were relying on mental muscles to help their response to temptation.

This experiment helped redefine the term willpower. We mostly think of willpower as resisting temptation, not eating the marshmallow for example. What Mischen realised was that this was backwards; he said that the children who were able to divert their attention elsewhere were able to resist the marshmallows. This was dubbed “strategic allocation of attention”, a fancy way of saying that the children were able to distract themselves. Those that covered their eyes or looked away from the stimulus (the marshmallow) hadn’t defeated the urge to eat the sweet; they had simply forgotten it was there. This seems rather unsettling to me, as it shows that there is an underlying weakness to will: resistance is only possible if we are not trying to resist.

This advert is a spoof of a fantastic experiment. By cherry-picking the part of the experiment that shows how children cannot resist sweets, they are manipulating scientific results. What this advert is actually presenting is that ALL the children who eat their sweets because they are “Just too good” when they are told not to will potentially end up with behavioural problems as they grow up. If you look at this from another perspective, it is not the sweets as such, but the inability to follow instructions that will ultimately cause problems. When I was a small child my mother told me not to touch the iron because it was hot. Low and behold, I did touch the iron. It was hot. I burnt my finger. By telling children to NOT do something, they are more likely to do this forbidden act, purely because it is forbidden. At what age does this stop happening? Or is it down to experience; how many times do we need to do something when told not to before we learn?

I find it a shame that this is how science is being used by the media. Haribo are sensationalising a significant finding in science, only to showcase what they think is important, and what they think will ultimately sell their product.

Go to the orginal article here or listen below