The Marshmallow Study Revisited

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?

Now 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 three minutes—than youngsters in similar but unreliable situations.

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.”

Children 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 children’s wait times reflect 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.

The Marshmallow Study Revisited