The new study by Kidd et al — Rational snacking: Young children’s decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability (PDF, news item) — revisits the classic marshmallow test with an interesting twist.
In the original study, kids were given one marshmallow and told that if they waited, they would get an additional marshmallow. For some kids this proved to be a difficult challenge (see the embedded video below for some really cute kids struggling).
The study presumed that those who were unable to wait had an inability to delay gratification.
The study then followed the kids up years later and found a correlation between the ability to wait and proxy markers for success (parents’ assessment of teen competency and SAT scores).
The new study basically asked how kids’ rational decision-making abilities would affect their ability to delay gratification.
Study design. 28 children aged 3-5 were randomly split into two arms: the reliable and the unreliable. The children then undertook an art task. Those in the reliable group were promised nicer art supplies if they waited and those supplies were delivered. In the unreliable group, the children were promised the same supplies but did not get them.
The researchers then conducted the identical marshmallow task for both groups: sit with this one marshmallow and you’ll get two marshmallows instead of one. They weren’t told how long, but they ended the test at 15 minutes.
Can you guess what happened next?
Results. Kids in the reliable group waited an average of 12 minutes before eating the marshmallow and 9 of 14 kids lasted the entire 15 minutes. Kids in the unreliable group waited an average of 3 minutes; only 1 of 14 kids in this arm waited the full 15 minutes.
Authors’ conclusion. Kidd et al summed their research up as follows:
The results of our study indicate that young children’s performance on sustained delay-of-gratification tasks can be strongly influenced by rational decision-making processes. If self-control capacity differences were the primary causal mechanism implicated in children’s wait-times, then information about the reliability of the environment should not have affected them. … The effect we observed is consistent with converging evidence that young children are sensitive to uncertainty about future rewards.
What I like about this study is how nicely it ties in with the one I previously mentioned on willpower.
And your mileage may vary, but I see this new study as additional support for the idea that while abstaining from problem food substances may be a helpful strategy for some maybe it’s addressing a symptom and not the problem. If true, and there are other strategies that help make tilt the decision-making in our favor, then perhaps abstaining may not necessarily be required for all who compulsively overeat or are addicted to foodstuffs like sugar.
Update: here’s the YouTube summary of the study.