Curious about how you would have faired in the famous marshmallow test? Hulu might have a clue

If you’re a reader of the Nudge blog, you know all about Walter Mischel’s marshmallow test. (References to it are popping up in media everywhere these days.) Maybe you are curious how you might have done on the test if it had been you and one of his assistants at the Stanford lab decades ago. Would you have had the self-control to hold out for the second marshmallow?

If you watch many TV shows on Hulu, you might have already gotten a clue.

Hulu streams ads during its programs. It uses three advertising models, Standard, Premium, and something called Hulu Exclusive Format. When you watch shows under the third format you are presented with a choice before you start viewing. You are offered the option to watch a “long-form commercial” up front in exchange for a showing of your program without additional ads. Or, you can watch your program with “normal commercial breaks.” In other words, you can start watching sooner, or you can wait a bit and experience the pleasure of uninterrupted viewing.

If you watch enough shows under this format, you quickly get a sense of how long a “long-form commercial” runs. The Nudge blog watched one this week that lasted 90 seconds. But if it’s your first time encountering this advertising format, you are a bit uncertain about the commercial’s length. 1 minute? 2 minutes? More? You also aren’t necessarily sure whether the long-form commercial is going to be shorter or longer than the total ad time in the program with “normal commercial breaks.” Do you have to experience more commercial pain up front to get the enjoyment of subsequent commercial-free viewing?

It seems, at least, that is not the case. When the Nudge blog watched the same 22-minute program under both formats, the normal commercial breaks ended up running 15 seconds longer than the single long-form commercial at the beginning. In fact, even under the normal format, Hulu forces you to watch a 30-second commercial before your program starts. The test would be more interesting if you actually got to start watching right away, or if Hulu allowed sponsors to push the boundaries of “long-form.” How pleasurable is uninterrupted viewing? What’s tempting enough to get you to forsake it?

Hulu also employs a bit of choice architecture to nudge you toward the long-form commercial. Of the two boxes shown at the start of the program, the long-form commercial box is already checked. And there is a 15-second countdown clock, after which, if no choice has been made, the long-form commercial kicks in. So the long-form commercial sponsor clearly wants you to exhibit a bit of self-control for their message’s sake.

Does the patience of Hulu viewers mirror the results of Mischel’s test? Only Hulu knows. For now, it hasn’t said anything.

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  • A.T.

    Some studies show that viewers enjoy comedy shows more when watched with commercial breaks. Because one can get numb by the jokes. Dramas, however, are better enjoyed without breaks.
    Despite knowing this, I’d always watch the long form because I would just let it play and walk away to get a drink or something.

  • Warren Saunders

    I read some recent research showing that people enjoy television programs more when there are commercial breaks, perhaps because they allow time to process what has happened so far, improving memory and understanding, or allow a break from maintaining attention and focus.  Though this is likely not conscious, it may subtly condition viewers to prefer regular commercial breaks instead of the shorter up-front ad.  Since reading the article, I keep this in mind when I am given the choice.

    I also factor in my expectation of wanting a break during the show to use the bathroom, visit the kitchen, or do some other 30-60 second task during the show without extending the show time by pausing it.

    These are confounding factors in comparing the commercial choice to the marshmallow experiment.

  • Anonymous

    Very clever, connecting the marshmallow test to the Hulu ad options! This is a bit of a tangent, but I’ve always been skeptical of Mischel’s marshmallow test. Are two marshmallows later really better than one marshmallow now? Clearly $2 is better than $1, but for marshmallows it’s not so clear. Firstly, sweet foods can have diminishing returns. Someone might only want to eat one marshmallow even if you were offered two dozen. Secondly, maybe the kid doesn’t really want marshmallows, except for marshmallows that the kid can currently see. Consider this analogous experiment: I apply some kind of irritant to your left elbow that makes it itch. I then make you this offer: I will let you scratch your right elbow in five minutes if you refrain from scratching your left elbow during that time. Why would you put yourself through those itchy five minutes? Just scratch your left elbow and move on with your life.

  • Anonymous

    Should be “fared”, not “faired” in your headline.