Main Category: Psychology / Psychiatry
Also Included In: Pediatrics / Children’s Health
Article Date: 16 Oct 2012 – 15:00 PDT
The Marshmallow Test – One Now Or Two Later?
The “marshmallow test” is an experiment which measures how much self-control a preschooler has – will they eat one enticing marshmallow now, or will they hold back and wait for the promised two? It is an experiment that has been around for over forty years and is stated to reflect how well preschoolers are likely to do later on in life.
Researchers from the University of Rochester reported on a new type of experiment in the journal Cognition. They state their study showed that the capability to delay gratification is influenced by two things: an innate capability to wait, and the person’s environment.
They found that young children who had been exposed to reliable environments would wait 12 minutes for the two promised marshmallows, compared to children in unreliable environments who waited just three minutes.
Lead author, Celeste Kidd, said:
“Our results definitely temper the popular perception that marshmallow-like tasks are very powerful diagnostics for self-control capacity.
Being able to delay gratification – in this case to wait 15 difficult minutes to earn a second marshmallow – not only reflects a child’s capacity for self-control, it also reflects their belief about the practicality of waiting,” states Kidd. “Delaying gratification is only the rational choice if the child believes a second marshmallow is likely to be delivered after a reasonably short delay.”
Coauthor Richard Aslin stated that their findings remind us about how complex human behavior is. “This study is an example of both nature and nurture playing a role,” he says. “We know that to some extent, temperament is clearly inherited, because infants differ in their behaviors from birth. But this experiment provides robust evidence that young children’s actions are also based on rational decisions about their environment.”
Marshmallow studies started off at Stanford University in the 1960s. This research builds on those studies and subsequent ones. In the original ones, Walter Mischel et al demonstrated that young children who were able to delay gratification tended to be more successful later in life. Preschoolers who waited longer tended to subsequently have higher SAT scores, were less likely to be involved in substance abuse, and had better social skills (according to parental reports).
The marshmallow studies have often been quoted as evidence that rather than intelligence (IQ), self-control or emotional intelligence matter more when navigating towards a successful life.
In this experiment, Celeste Kidd and team wanted to determine more closely why some preschoolers can resist the tempting marshmallow while others succumb to nibbling, licking and evening gobbling up the tasty treat.
The researchers randomly selected 28 children aged 3 to 5 years into two environments, a reliable and unreliable one.
They had expected to then work with a larger group of kids. However, the results were so compellingly clear that it was not necessary. They did not need a larger group to rule out factors which could have affected the results, such as hunger.
What happened in the Rochester experiment?All the children were given a create-your-own-cup kit. They had to decorate a blank sheet of paper that would then go into the cup.The unreliable condition group – the children received a container of old, used and partly broken crayons. The researcher stated that if they waited a bit, they would soon be provided with a larger and much nicer set of new art supplies.
Two-and-a-half minutes later, the researcher came back and stated “I’m sorry, but I made a mistake. We do not have any other art supplies after all. But why do not you use these instead?”
Then the researcher placed a quarter-inch sticker on the table in front of each child. They were told that the researcher would soon come back with lots of better stickers they could use. They waited the same length of time; the researchers came back empy-handed.
The reliable condition group – the same set up was presented to the children as in the unreliable condition group. However, the researcher came back after a while with five to seven large, die-cut stickers.
The marshmallow taskWith the two groups, the reliable condition group and the unreliable condition group, the researchers tried out the marshmallow task. The researcher stated “one marshmallow right now. Or – if you can wait for me to get more marshmallows from the other room – you can have two marshmallows to eat instead.”
All the art supplies were removed and a single marshmallow was placed in front of each child in a small desert dish four inches from the edge of the table. The researchers and the kids’ parents could see them through a video system until the first child ate a marshmallow or 15 minutes had passed, whichever came first. All the children were then given three extra marshmallows.
Co-author, Holly Palmeri, described observing the children as they attempted to wait as long as they could, as “quite entertaining”. Many of them took a tiny bite from the underside of the marshmallow and carefully placed it back in the desert cup so that nobody would notice. A smaller number nibbled bits off the top as well, forgetting it would be impossible to hide the evidence because both ends had been nibbled at.
“We had one tiny boy who grabbed the marshmallow immediately and we thought he was going to eat it. Instead he sat on it. Instead of covering his eyes, he covered the marshmallow.”
The unreliable situation group – the children waited for an average of three minutes and two seconds before eating the sweet. Only one of them waited 15 minutes.
The reliable situation group – they waited an average of 12 minutes and two seconds. Nine children waited a full 15 minutes.
Aslin stated “I was astounded that the effect was so large. I thought that we might get a difference of maybe a minute or so. . . . You do not see effects like this very often.”
In previous research, where children were not exposed to reliable or unreliable situations, they waited an average of 5.71 to 6.08 minutes. By manipulating the environment, children’s waiting times could be doubled or halved. In those studies they found that if the treat was hidden, their waiting times increased by 3.75 minutes, while reminding the children about the larger reward extended their waiting times by 2.53 minutes.
This study demonstrates that children’s waiting times reflect rational decision-making regarding the likelihood of reward.
Other studies have shown that children are sensitive to the certainty or uncertainty in future rewards. Apparently, according to one study, children with no dad in the house prefer more immediate rewards rather than larger ones they have to wait for.
These findings are reassuring, states Kidd. She stated that the predictive power of earlier experiments all those years ago were “depressing” for her. Then, she was working as a volunteer at a homeless shelter for families in Santa Ana, California. “There were lots of children staying there with their families. Everyone shared one huge area, so keeping personal possessions safe was difficult. When one child got a toy or treat, there was a real risk of a bigger, faster kid taking it away. I read about these studies and I thought, ‘All of these children would eat the marshmallow right away.’ “Kidd added:
“If you are used to getting things taken away from you, not waiting is the rational choice. Then it occurred to me that the marshmallow task might be correlated with something else that the child already knows – like having a stable environment.”
Does this mean that if your toddler gobbles up dessert without waiting for the others to begin that he will not respond to proper reliable role models? Not necessarily, the authors say. “Children do monitor the behavior of parents and adults, but it is unlikely that they are keeping detailed records of every single action. It’s the overall sense of a parent’s reliability or unreliability that is going to get through, not every single action.”
Kidd urges parents not to try out the marshmallow test at home and then draw conclusions about their child. Being a parent in the experiment is already a factor which makes any of the findings unreliable – the child has many expectations about what a loved one is likely to do.
In August 2011, an article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences followed up some of those marshmallow experiment children forty years later. They found that those who were able to delay gratification remained so, while those who wanted their treat straight away had not changed much either.
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