The marshmallow test revisited

When kids "pass" the marshmallow test, are they simply better at self-control or is something else going on? A new UC San Diego study revisits the classic psychology experiment and reports that part of what may be at work is that children care more deeply than previously known what authority figures think of them.

In the marshmallow test, young children are given one marshmallow and told they can eat it right away or, if they wait a while, while nobody is watching, they can have two marshmallows instead. The half-century-old test is quite well-known. It's entered everyday speech, and you may have chuckled at an online video or two in which children struggle adorably on hidden camera with the temptation of an immediate treat.

But the real reason the test is famous (and infamous) is because researchers have shown that the ability to wait - to delay gratification in order to get a bigger reward later - is associated with a range of positive life outcomes far down the line, including better stress tolerance and higher SAT scores more than a decade later. Whether or not it's just this ability to wait or a host of other socioeconomic and personality factors that are predictive is still up for debate, but the new study, published in the journal Psychological Science, shows that young children will wait nearly twice as long for a reward if they are told their teacher will find out how long they waited.


Children waited longer in both the teacher and peer conditions than in the standard condition. The difference was about twice as great in the teacher condition as compared to the peer condition. The researchers interpret these results to mean that when children decide how long to wait, they make a cost-benefit analysis that takes into account the possibility of getting a social reward in the form of a boost to their reputation. These findings suggest that the desire to impress others is strong and can motivate human behavior starting at a very young age.



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