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October 30, 2012

The Marshmallow Study revisited

Study: Delaying gratification depends as much on nurture as on nature

girl staring at marshmallow
Evelyn Rose, 4, of Brighton, participates in a reenactment of the marshmallow experiment. The study found that children’s decisions to delay gratification is influenced as much by the environment as by their innate capacity for self-control.

For the past four decades, the “marshmallow test” has served as a classic experimental measure of children’s self-control: will a preschooler eat one of the fluffy white confections now or hold out for two later?

A new study demonstrates that being able to delay gratification is influenced as much by the environment as by innate ability. Children who experienced reliable interactions immediately before the marshmallow task waited on average four times longer—12 versus 3 minutes—than youngsters in similar but unreliable situations.

“Our results definitely temper the popular perception that marshmallow-like tasks are very powerful diagnostics for self-control capacity,” says Celeste Kidd, a doctoral candidate in brain and cognitive sciences at Rochester and lead author on the study published online in the journal Cognition.

“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,” says 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.”

The findings provide an important reminder about the complexity of human behavior, adds coauthor Richard Aslin, the William R. Kenan Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University. “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 action are also based on rational decisions about their environment.”

The research builds on a long series of marshmallow-related studies that began at Stanford University in the late 1960s. Walter Mischel and other researchers famously showed that individual differences in the ability to delay gratification on this simple task correlated strongly with success in later life. Longer wait times as a child were linked years later to higher SAT scores, less substance abuse, and parental reports of better social skills.

Because of the surprising correlation, the landmark marshmallow studies have been cited as evidence that qualities like self-control or emotional intelligence in general may be more important to navigating life successfully than more traditional measures of intelligence, such as IQ.

The Rochester team wanted to explore more closely why some preschoolers are able to resist the marshmallow while others succumb to licking, nibbling, and eventually swallowing the sugary treat. The researchers assigned 28 three- to five-year-olds to two contrasting environments: unreliable and reliable.

In the unreliable condition, the children were provided a container of used crayons and told that if they could wait, the researcher would return shortly with a bigger and better set of new art supplies for their project. After two and a half minutes, the research returned with this explanation: “I’m sorry, but I made a mistake. We don’t have any other art supplies after all. But why don’t you use these instead?” She then helped to open the crayon container.

Next a quarter-inch sticker was placed on the table and the child was told that if he or she could wait, the researcher would return with a large selection of better stickers to use. The researcher again returned empty handed.

The reliable group experienced the same set up, but the researcher returned with the promised materials.
The marshmallow task followed, with the explanation that the child could have “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.” The researcher removed the art supplies and placed a single marshmallow in a small desert dish four inches from the table’s edge directly in front of the child.

image of marshmallow on iPhone screenChildren who experienced unreliable interactions with an experimenter waited for a mean time of three minutes and two seconds on the subsequent marshmallow task, while youngsters who experienced reliable interactions held out for 12 minutes and two seconds. Only one of the 14 children in the unreliable group waited the full 15 minutes, compared to nine children in the reliable condition.

The robust effect of manipulating the environment, conclude the authors, provides strong evidence that wait times reflect the children’s rational decision making about the probability of reward. The results are consistent with other research showing that children are sensitive to uncertainly in future rewards and with population studies showing children with absent fathers prefer more immediate rewards over larger but delayed ones.

So does that mean that if little ones gobble up dessert without waiting, as is typical of preschoolers, should parents worry that they have failed to be role models of reliability?

Not necessarily, say the researchers. “Children do monitor the behavior of parents and adults, but it is unlikely that they are keeping detailed records of every single action,” says Aslin. “It’s the overall sense of a parent’s reliability or unreliability that’s going to get through, not every single action.”

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