Still Misunderstanding The Marshmallow Test

If you don’t know what the marshmallow test is, here’s an explanation (boldface mine):

The marshmallow test is a famous psychological experiment intended to measure children’s self control. A researcher places a tasty treat — often a marshmallow — before a child, and gives her a choice: She can eat the marshmallow now, or she can wait a set period of time and eat two marshmallows instead.

The test is a measure of a child’s ability to delay gratification, which subsequent research has shown to be linked to all sorts of positive outcomes, like better grades, good behavior and even healthy body mass index.

Researchers have been administering the test to groups of kids for over 50 years now, which leads to a natural question: Have kids’ abilities to delay gratification gotten better or worse over the years?

Good news! It gets better:

John Protzko, a researcher at the University of California at Santa Barbara, wanted to find out whether kids were getting better or worse at the marshmallow test over time. So he gathered and analyzed the results of over 30 published marshmallow test trials administered between 1968 and 2017.

For each study, he plotted the average amount of time kids were able to delay eating the marshmallow. He also corrected for differences in kids’ ages when taking the test (older kids are better at delaying gratification than younger ones)….

“Kids these days are better at delaying gratification on the marshmallow test,” Protzko writes. “Each year, all else equal, corresponds to an increase in the ability to delay gratification by another six seconds.”

Interestingly, 260 cognitive development researchers predicted kids would perform worse on the marshmallow test:

Over half said they believed that kids’ ability to delay gratification had gotten worse over time. Another 32 percent said there’s be no change, while only 16 percent said kids’ self-control had improved in the past 50 years.

The author of the piece argues that this is just time-honored bitching about ‘kids today.’ But I think there’s something important going on here about child welfare. When researchers added a twist to the study–before administering the marshmallow test, there was a similar ‘sticker test’ (if kids could delay playing with a sticker, they would be rewarded with more stickers to play with). However, in some cases, the researchers lied–they didn’t bring more stickers. The kids who were lied to were more likely to fail the marshmallow test (and also invented fewer clever solutions for passing, such as sitting on the marshmallow).

What this tells me is that more kids are growing up in ‘reliable’ homes, where self-discipline is rewarded and where promises are kept. This is a good thing for children and worth celebrating. Maybe parents and the Kids Today (who were the Awful Kids yesterday) are all right.

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8 Responses to Still Misunderstanding The Marshmallow Test

  1. I always hated marshmallows. Self-discipline had nothing to do with it.

  2. Min says:

    Not to dispute the importance of parents keeping their promises to their kids, Kevin Drum ( http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2017/09/american-kids-will-wait-9-minutes-for-a-second-marshmallow/ ) makes a good point about the apparent improvement of US kids on the marshmallow test. If you delete the first three results, the trend line is constant. US kids wait 9 minutes on average before eating the marshmallow. The improvement was not evenly spread out over 48 years (1968 – 2016), but over 3 years (1968 – 1971). Drum hypothesizes that that change reflects the improvements in the methodology of the research. Feynman warns us not to trust data at the end points. 🙂

  3. afeman says:

    Environmental lead?

  4. noddin0ff says:

    Good just be the increase in anti-sugar sentiments from parents and the general decrease in first-hand marshmallow experience due to declining girl/boy scout enrollments…

  5. noddin0ff says:

    Good >> Could. oops.

  6. kaleberg says:

    The marshmallow test always struck me as a way of measuring a child’s experience, not something intrinsic. Kids who are used to being rewarded for good behavior are more likely to exhibit good behavior. Kids who are used to broken promises with regards to good behavior are more likely not to bother. As a kid who hated marshmallows, I suppose it could also be a measure of how much a kid likes marshmallows.

  7. Kevskos says:

    How much of the difference could be to better nutrition, if one is hungry that instant marshmallow might look mighty tempting.

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