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A New Interpretation of the Marshmallow Test

73 elharo 05 July 2013 12:22PM

I've begun to notice a pattern with experiments in behavioral economics. An experiment produces a result that's counter-intuitive and surprising, and demonstrates that people don't behave as rationally as expected. Then, as time passes, other researchers contrive different versions of the experiment that show the experiment may not have been about what we thought it was about in the first place. For example, in the dictator game, Jeffrey Winking and Nicholas Mizer changed the experiment so that the participants didn't know each other and the subjects didn't know they were in an experiment. With this simple adjustment that made the conditions of the game more realistic, the "dictators" switched from giving away a large portion of their unearned gains to giving away nothing. Now it's happened to the marshmallow test.

In the original Stanford marshmallow experiment, children were given one marshmallow. They could eat the marshmallow right away; or, if they waited fifteen minutes for the experimenter to return without eating the marshmallow, they'd get a second marshmallow. Even more interestingly, in follow-up studies two decades later, the children who waited longer for the second marshmallow, i.e. showed delayed gratification, had higher SAT scores, school performance, and even improved Body Mass Index. This is normally interpreted as indicating the importance of self-control and delayed gratification for life success.

Not so fast.

In a new variant of the experiment entitled (I kid you not) "Rational snacking", Celeste Kidd, Holly Palmeri, and Richard N. Aslin from the University of Rochester gave the children a similar test with an interesting twist.

They assigned 28 children to two groups asked to perform art projects. Children in the first group each received half a container of used crayons, and were told that if they could wait, the researcher would bring them more and better art supplies. However, after two and a half minutes, the adult returned and told the child they had made a mistake, and there were no more art supplies so they'd have to use the original crayons.

In part 2, the adult gave the child a single sticker and told the child that if they waited, the adult would bring them more stickers to use. Again the adult reneged.

Children in the second group went through the same routine except this time the adult fulfilled their promises, bringing the children more and better art supplies and several large stickers.

After these two events, the experimenters repeated the classic marshmallow test with both groups. The results demonstrated children were a lot more rational than we might have thought. Of the 14 children in group 1, who had been shown that the experimenters were unreliable adults, 13 of them ate the first marshmallow. 8 of the 14 children in the reliable adult group, waited out the fifteen minutes. On average children in unreliable group 1 waited only 3 minutes, and those in reliable group 2 waited 12 minutes.

So maybe what the longitudinal studies show is that children who come from an environment where they have learned to be more trusting have better life outcomes. I make absolutely no claims as to which direction the arrow of causality may run, or whether it's pure correlation with other factors. For instance, maybe breastfeeding increases both trust and academic performance. But any way you interpret these results, the case for the importance and even the existence of innate self-control is looking a lot weaker.