It’s Not Just About Delaying Gratification

When talking about the psychology of success, one experiment that comes up pretty frequently is the marshmallow task. Children around 4 years old were placed in front of an edible treat of some sort, and told that if they could wait fifteen minutes without eating the treat in front of them, they would get a second treat. The children were observed and timed for how long they could go without eating the present treat, and about a third of them made it the whole fifteen minutes to the reward. The experiment was conceived to study self-control, but there have been several follow-up studies that seemed to indicate correlations between how long the children could hold out on the marshmallow task and their subsequent competence, SAT scores, and brain activity in regions related to control and addiction. In short, people often refer to the marshmallow task study to support claims that willpower at a young age predicts success later in life.

But the assumption there is that waiting is the optimal, if most difficult, strategy. Because sure, waiting for an additional reward could show self-control and the ability to look ahead, when the children think they can trust their environment. A new follow-up study explores this concept further:

While volunteering years ago at a homeless shelter for families in Santa Ana, Calif., [study author Celeste Kidd] realized that all the kids around her would eat their marshmallows straight away, living as they did in an environment where anything they had could be taken away at any time. “Delaying gratification is only the rational choice if the child believes a second marshmallow is likely to be delivered,” Kidd says.

Although previous marshmallow-type studies have acknowledged that external factors might influence kids’ ability to wait for the bigger reward, none had directly tested for those factors’ effects. So Kidd and her colleagues ran a study in which they manipulated the reliability of their young participants’ environment. A researcher gave children with an average age of four years some poor-quality art materials and told them if they could wait, she would return with better supplies. In a “reliable” condition, she did exactly that, but in an “unreliable” condition, she returned to explain she did not have any better materials after all. A marshmallow test followed. Those in the reliable condition lasted an average of 12 minutes, whereas those in the unreliable condition lasted only three.

So in fact, the marshmallow task isn’t necessarily a measure of willpower, but also a measure of environmental stability, which ties into socioeconomical status, parenting type, and many other things, and it may be these variables that are contributing to success later in life. Hopefully this message about the inherent classism of the earlier interpretations filters through to psychology popularizers as well as the scientific community.

4 thoughts on “It’s Not Just About Delaying Gratification

  1. Tim Chevalier

    I read about this study a few months ago and was happy to see the debunking of a result that was flawed because of folks’ inability or unwillingness to think outside their privilege. I can’t help but think about the comments about whether “dominance” is inevitable on my most recent post on this blog, as another example of why we need to look skeptically at research results that reinforce existing power structures (in this case, what the original marshmallow study reinforced was the belief that poverty exists because individual poor people have certain character traits; this belief is convenient for people who benefit from the sustained existence of an underclass, for obvious reasons). The answer is, of course, more research — preferably from people whose lived experiences lead them to question these convenient beliefs — and for that, it’s essential that science represent everyone, not just white cis heterosexual abled men from an upper-class or upper-middle-class background. The combination of the magical-thinking belief that being a scientist (and only being a scientist) makes a person objective, along with the exclusion of people who aren’t white cis heterosexual abled men from science, is a dangerous one.

  2. Rachel Holmen

    The report says “So in fact, the marshmallow task isn’t necessarily a measure of willpower, but also a measure of environmental stability…” but it’s actually about PERCEIVED environmental stability. It seems to me that the kids who’ve been cheated are QUITE ACCURATELY assessing that the researchers are untrustworthy liars. And in their worlds, being able to perceive who is untrustworthy — about promised employment, about housing conditions, about relationship status — is crucial to their survival.

    Example from my personal background: I actually gave up an apartment in one state and moved to another on a promise of a job from someone OTHER than the actual employer, whose direct contact I was never given; I was assured over and over that the job was legitimate and mine. It wasn’t, not from any direct intent to lie to me but from the general incompetence of my contact in the other state. A bit more skepticism on my part would have been quite healthy.

  3. Miri

    Wow, thank you so much for writing about this. I study psychology and am very familiar with that study, but I’d really never considered how it might be dependent on environmental stability and what happens when children don’t trust that the promised rewards will actually be delivered. This is important.

Comments are closed.