Many of us are familiar with the marshmallow test (Mischel, Stanford, 1972) – give a child a marshmallow, tell them that they can either eat that one marshmallow now, or wait to get two marshmallows later.
The original test was to assess self-control but one of the unexpected findings in a follow-up study was an unexpected correlation between the results of the marshmallow test, and the success of the children many years later. The first follow-up study found that “preschool children who delayed gratification longer in the self-imposed delay paradigm, were described more than 10 years later by their parents as adolescents who were significantly more competent” and the second follow-up study (1990) demonstrated that self-control correlated to higher SAT scores.
We came across this white paper and thought that it would be useful to revisit the topic from a nature & nurture perspective. What the new study has found is that the ability to delay gratification is not only influenced by innate ability, but also by the child’s environment. What was found was that children not only make decisions based on their innate temperament, but also on their experiences on how reliable their environment is.
In this extension of the marshmallow test, instead of marshmallows, better art supplies and stickers were promised instead. In the reliable group, children waited and were rewarded with better art supplies and stickers. In the unreliable group, children waited but were disappointed as they were told that the art supplies were unavailable.
Results of the study found that children in the unreliable group generally did not wait as long as children who in the reliable group. As they always say, “once bitten, twice shy”. Children are quick to pick up on environmental cues – if their self-control is not being rewarded, they will be led to think that any subsequent self-control will not be rewarded and hence, they will make a rational decision not to wait for later but to think only of now.
At Kindernomics, we think it is really important to talk to children about waiting and patience and we constantly strive to provide a stable and reliable environment for our children to grow up so that they can reach for the stars ☺
Volume 126, Issue 1, January 2013, Pages 109 – 114
Rational snacking: Young children’s decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability
Kidd, Palmeri & Aslin
University of Rochester