Marshmallows and Self-Control

Child self control related to reliability of environment in marshmallow study

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Kissing the dog on the mouth, greeting guests without clothes on, eating inedible objects – does this remind you of anyone?

While children often behave in ways that make us unsure of their decision-making abilities, previous studies have shown that even small children have some ability to make rational decisions.

A recent study says that the reliability of a child’s environment plays a big role in whether they are able to exhibit self-control and make positive choices.

"Consistency is key for small children!"

Celeste Kidd, PhD candidate in the Brain and Cognitive Sciences department at the University of Rochester in New York led a team of researchers to add a new dimension to the old “marshmallow study” conducted in the 70’s.

In the previous marshmallow study, the researchers measured a child’s self control by leaving them alone with a single marshmallow. If the child was able to wait a period of time before eating the marshmallow the child would be rewarded with a second one. This new study takes it a step further.

A total of 28 children between 3 and 6 years old were selected for the study. The children were then split between two groups, one group was tested in what was determined a reliable environment, the other group in an unreliable environment.

In both groups, the children were first allowed to work on an art activity. For each child, a researcher offered a set of well-used crayons to use, but the researcher told each child that they would go out and get a brand new set of crayons to choose from while the child waited.

In the reliable environment group, the child waited and the researcher returned with new crayons as promised. In the unreliable environment group, the researcher returned, but told the child they had been mistaken, there were no more new crayons  and the child had to work with what was already on the table.

This process was repeated a second time with each child, this time using stickers.

In creating these two scenarios for each child, the researcher established either a reliable (the researcher did what she said she would do) or unreliable (the researcher didn't do what she said she would do) environment for the child.

Then the child was offered a snack of a single marshmallow. The researcher told the child they were leaving to go get more marshmallows saying, “I’ll leave this one marshmallow here, and if you haven’t eaten it when I come back, you can have two marshmallows instead!”

In this activity, the study aimed to measure a child’s ability to use self control in waiting for a reward (two marshmallows instead of one), with a maximum wait time of 15 minutes, when the researcher would return to the room.

The study found that children in the unreliable environment waited, on average, 3 minutes and 2 seconds before eating their single marshmallow, while children in the reliable group waited 12 minutes and 2 seconds on average, a difference of 9 minutes.

Also, in the reliable group, 9 of the 14 children waited the entire 15 minutes, earning their reward of a second marshmallow. Only one child from the unreliable group was able to wait the full 15 minutes.

Through analysis of the data, the researchers found that neither age, gender nor mood played a role in the differences of wait time.

The results suggest that children in a dependable, reliable environment are more able to use self control than children who are in unreliable environments.  This information could be very important when considering parenting strategies, classroom management strategies, and the growth and development of children.

"I'm actually glad to see a study that considers both internal and external factors in delaying gratification. In real life (as opposed to experiments) we are all influenced by our past experiences and environmental factors such as reliability.

Although the study sample is very small, what we know about human behavior is certainly consistent with these findings.

In my opinion, there is no way to determine why we make certain choices or exhibit specific behaviors without considering the impact of our life experiences and environment. There is really no such thing as 'person' - only 'person in environment' with the understanding that 'person' entails all our collective life experiences", said DailyRx contributing expert LuAnn Pierce, LCSW, when asked about the results of the marshmallow study.

This study was published this year in the journal of Cognition and was funded by grants from the National Institute of Health and National Science Foundation. The authors state no conflicts of interest.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
October 29, 2012
Last Updated:
October 30, 2012