Marshmallow test redux: Children with strong self-control not better off after all

NEW YORK — The world-famous marshmallow test may certainly be entertaining to watch, but its results may not be as sound as first thought. A study that presented a more recent attempt at the psychological experiment shows that children who can delay gratification longer aren’t necessarily more likely to have rosier outcomes later in life.

A study that presented a redux of the iconic marshmallow test shows that children who can delay gratification longer aren’t necessarily more likely to have rosier outcomes later in life. (Photo by Rebecca Freeman on Unsplash)

Dr. Tyler W. Watts, an assistant professor of research and a postdoctoral scholar at New York University, replicated the iconic marshmallow test, a landmark study led by psychologist Walter Mischel that tested the self-control abilities of children. The test involves a marshmallow placed in front of a child, with participants being offered the chance to enjoy more marshmallows if they can wait to eat the one in front of them. Mischel measured how long the child resisted the temptation to eat it, or if they could hold out of the larger bounty of sweets.

For this latest effort, Dr. Watts tested 918 children, with a broader set of socioeconomic backgrounds for the cohort.

“I still remember, as an undergraduate, being fascinated by the findings from the famous marshmallow test when I first encountered them in my Introduction to Psychology course,” explains Watts in a university media release. “Given the attention these findings still receive when decisions are made about the skills early-intervention programs should target, we thought it was important to revisit the older work by replicating the original experiment using a newer sample and updated statistical methods.”

Though the initial study concluded that children who were able to resist the temptation and hold out for larger rewards were more prepared for taking on similar challenges in adulthood, Watts’ attempt wasn’t as promising. Children who demonstrated greater patience and self-control did in fact perform better in reading and math during adolescence, but the connection wasn’t prominent and researchers found the effect actually disappeared when factors such as the child’s family life and early environment were taken into account.

Watts also concluded that the ability to delay gratification didn’t correlate to a child’s behavior or personality during adolescence. The researchers suggest that working with children to strengthen their self-control at a young age is more likely to lead to disappointment for those expecting dramatic changes in behavior.

“Our findings suggest that an intervention that alters a child’s ability to delay, but fails to change more general cognitive and behavioral capacities, will probably have very small effects on later outcomes,” says Watts. “If intervention developers hope to generate the kinds of improvements associated with the original marshmallow study, it is likely to be more fruitful to target the broader cognitive and behavioral abilities related to gratification delay.”

Watts notes that the findings don’t imply that gratification delay doesn’t have value when it comes to raising a child. Rather, it should be part of a greater focus when it comes to the development of skills.

“Of course, these new findings should not be interpreted to suggest that gratification delay is completely unimportant, but rather that focusing only on teaching young children to delay gratification is unlikely to make much of a difference,” he says.

The new study was published May 25, 2018 in the journal Psychological Science.

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