What can the marshmallow test tell us about trust-based CX?


Work colleagues KATE and KEVIN exit their office building.

KATE: Hey, do you know about the Stanford marshmallow test?

KEVIN: Vaguely. Remind me.

KATE: Basically, they isolated small children and administered high doses of sugar.


KATE: Yeah, and if the kid resisted, they got a double dose.

KEVIN: That’s f’ed up!

KATE: Well, it was the 70s.

KEVIN: That explains it. How\’d it work?

KATE: Well, the researchers, or lab technicians, or . . .

KEVIN: (Notices a woman with a large chocolate brown dog on a leash.) Call them labs.

KATE: Ok. The lab brings a three to five year-old kid into a barren room and seats them at a table. They place a big fluffy marshmallow on the table and tell the kid they can eat it anytime they want.

KEVIN: “And despairing of its reality, they fall to immediately and gobble it up.” (Notices Kate staring at him, slack-jawed.) Hegel. Sorry. . . . Philosophy major.

KATE: You’re really lucky I didn’t get to interview you. Anyway – pay attention, this is the important part – the lab explains that if the kid waits, they can have TWO marshmallows.

KEVIN: Cool. How long do they have to wait?

KATE: Fifteen minutes.

KEVIN: FIFTEEN MINUTES? That’s MONTHS to a 3 year-old! It’s just torture!

KATE: Yup.


KEVIN: Let me guess: All of the kids who were subjected to this cruelty grew up to be sociopaths?

KATE: Well, I know one who’s an artist. (Winks.) Seriously: Think of it as KOOMs (Kids Of One Marshmallow, about two-thirds of the group) and KOMMs (Kids Of Multiple Marshmallows). The KOMMs are able to delay gratification, to invest time (and, ok, maybe some agony) in order to get a greater reward. When the labs followed up years later, they found that \”the self-disciplined third had a lower body mass index, higher S.A.T. scores, and fewer problems with drugs and attention span.\”

KEVIN: (Scrolling through search results on his phone.) Yeah, a Bloomberg article said, “They were, in short, better at life.” Wow. 


KATE: Well, maybe. The Stanford test has been debunked, and de-debunked, and re-debunked

KEVIN: Still, it applies pretty clearly to our company, right? Except we’ve got NCs (non-customers), COOTs (Customers Of One Transaction), and COMiTs (Customers of Multiple Transactions). It’s just like you said in the last executive review: We put too much effort into the initial sale and not nearly enough in nurturing long-term, loyal, repeat customers.

KATE: Precisely. We’re too eager to eat the NC-to-COOT marshmallow instead of investing in turning COOTs into COMiTs and getting the greater reward. Except . . .

KEVIN: (Puts his phone away.) Except what?

KATE: Except it’s not really about the marshmallows.


 KATE: Ask yourself. What assurance did the kids have that the lab would return with the second marshmallow? In fact, he might have come in after those agonizing fifteen minutes, snatched the first one off of the table and said, “Sorry kid, no candy for you!”

KEVIN: Brutal!

KATE: Why believe that the lab will deliver the promised reward? In short, why should the kids TRUST them?

KEVIN: Another experiment, right?

KATE: (Nods.) In 2012, Celeste Kidd repeated the marshmallow test, but with a crucial addition. Before the marshmallows, the labs gave the kids art supplies – but the crayons were dull and broken.

KEVIN: Did the kids eat the crayons? Because I used to love them – especially green and blu . . .

KATE: Kevin! Focus! The lab would tell the kid that he would go look for new crayons. After two and a half minutes, he returned with a fresh box of crayons – or, alternatively, with the explanation that no other crayons could be found.

KEVIN: And the kids who got the new crayons were later less likely to eat the marshmallow, right? Because the labs had shown they could be trusted and the kids had more reason to believe they would get the second one! (Beaming proudly.)

KATE: You got it, Kev.  


KEVIN: But how does a simple box of crayons build trust?

KATE: First, you can’t “build trust,” because it’s an attitude that others have about you. But you can try to demonstrate that you’re worthy of trust. Trust experts have identified four “pillars” of trustworthiness: integrity, competence, reliability, and empathy. When the lab delivers a box of shiny, sharp crayons, he’s emphasizing all four pillars. (She counts them out on her fingers.)

  • Empathy, because he recognizes that kids don’t like to use old broken crayons.
  • Competence, because he knows where to find the new crayons.
  • Integrity, because his words align with his actions.
  • Reliability, because he keeps the “promise” to find better crayons.



KEVIN: Makes sense. But reliability has a temporal element, doesn’t it? It requires consistently and repeatedly delivering on your pledges.

KATE: Good point. It takes at least two interactions to establish reliability. But in fact, all four pillars are strengthened by behaviors and communications that consistently demonstrate trustworthiness over time.

KEVIN: So if we bring it back to our business, then we’re now like the labs rather than the kids.

KATE: Actually, we’re both.

KEVIN: (Ponders.) Oh yeah, both. Because we can’t even get that first marshmallow – converting the NC into a COOT – without the consumer’s trust. And then rather than just gobbling up that one marshmallow, we need to repeatedly show that we’re trustworthy and get more marshmallows by turning the COOTs into COMiTs!

KATE: Exactly. So we need to always ask: Does our marketing and messaging, our content and communications, our engagements and experiences demonstrate and iterate our trustworthiness? Or are we rather just sitting there trying not to consume our available resources and vaguely hoping that someone gives us another marshmallow? (She pushes open a door and they enter.)


(The bartender gives a wave of recognition as Kate and Kevin come in. He immediately starts preparing their usual drinks.)

KEVIN: (Looking at his phone as they wait for the drinks.) Do you know what they call marshmallows in France?

KATE: What?

KEVIN: Les Marshmallows.

BARTENDER: Hi Kate! (He sets down an ice cold Martini.) What’s up Kevin? (Puts down a Scotch, straight up.)

KATE: (As they raise their glasses.) To marshmallows!

KEVIN: To crayons!

TOGETHER: To trust!

KATE: (As Kevin is about to sip.) Ah, wait! Good news, Kev. I’m buying your Scotch tonight.

KEVIN: Wow, thanks!

KATE: And if you don’t drink any of that for fifteen minutes, I’ll buy you a second. (Smirks.)  

KEVIN: (Bites his lip. Fiddles with his glass. Picks up a coaster, turns it over, scratches at the surface.) Um, would you happen to have any crayons?


Title photo by olia danilevich from Pexels

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