Consumer Psychology

The Digital Marshmallow Test – Marketing Insights for Generation Now

Your smartphone is a digital marshmallow.

And you can use your digital marshmallow to run an adult variant of the famous “marshmallow test” – the psychological test of self-control for children that can be more predictive of success in later adulthood than IQ, education or socio-economic background (see video below).

So the digital marshmallow test works like this, place your smartphone facedown on the table, and either treat yourself to one marshmallow now, or treat yourself to two marshmallows if you can resist the temptation turnover and look at your smartphone for the next hour.  It’s devilishly hard to do.

We ran this simple experiment with 150 marketers at the Digital Innovation Day in Frankfurt yesterday, and the vast majority failed.

For marketers, the insight that smartphones are digital candy, to which we and our target audiences are chronically addicted, is useful.  First, it reinforces the new marketing wisdom that personal digital screens need to be at the heart of everything we do, not just for screenagers – screen addicted teens – but for all demographics.  Let’s face it, we’re addicted to our personal screens; they evoke obsessive, compulsive behaviour, and without them we suffer for separation anxiety that has been dubbed nomophobia (no mobile phone fear).  Many of us would prefer to be without our loved ones for extended periods than without digital marshmallows.

Second, the digital marshmallow test underlines the need to fit marketing within how we consume media today, craving a quick digital sugar high about 150 times a day – the number of times, on average, we look at our personal screens.  For marketers this means dealing with audiences with shrinking attention spans.

  • Since 2000, attention spans have dropped by a third, down to just 8 seconds
  • Amazon has found conversion drops 1% every 100 millisecond wait
  • 40% leave sites if they don’t load within 3 seconds – causing a facial frown known as the #BufferFace
  • 43% of us abandon emails if they take more than 30 seconds to read
  • 32% of us tune out if you don’t make your point in less than 15 seconds
  • 74% lose interest in presentations if the key point is not made in the first minute

In a world where instant gratification takes too long, we’re all live-streaming, fast-shipping, peri-scoping, multi-tasking, speed-dating, selfie-snapping, buzz-feeding, meer-katting, hash-tagging, geo-tagging, time-shifting, heart-beat tracking, paycheck-checking, net-flixing, home-automating, instant-messaging, insta-gramming, we-chatting, yik-yakking, you-tubing, whats-apping, snap-chatting…

It’s exhausting, but we’re ‘Generation Now’: We want it all and we want it now as we ‘Carpe’ the tech out of ‘Diem’.

Right now, learning to market to ourselves, today’s ‘Generation Now’ who crave instant gratification and immediate satisfaction, is marketing’s major challenge.



Chartered psychologist specialising in consumer behaviour, wellbeing and technology. Certified CX professional experienced in Design Thinking. A researcher, writer and speaker, Paul is head of Digital Insight at SYZYGY.

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