Quitting marshmallow test can be a rational decision

March 21, 2013

(Medical Xpress)—A psychological experiment known as "the marshmallow test" has captured the public's imagination as a marker of self control and even as a predictor of future success. This test shows how well children can delay gratification, a trait that has been shown to be as important to scholastic performance as traditional IQ.

New research from University of Pennsylvania suggests, however, that changing one's mind about delaying gratification can be a in situations when the timing of the payoff is uncertain.

The research was conducted by assistant professor Joseph Kable and postdoctoral researcher Joseph McGuire, both of the Department of Psychology in Penn's School of Arts and Sciences.

The study was published in the journal Psychological Review.

In the classic marshmallow test, researchers give children a choice between one marshmallow and two. After the children enthusiastically choose two, the experimenter says that they need to leave for "a few minutes" or "a little while." The children are also told that, if they can hold off eating the one marshmallow until the researcher returns, they can have the two marshmallows they prefer. With the children left alone in the room, hidden cameras track how long they resist temptation. Most try to wait but end up caving within a few minutes.

"The kids' responses seem illogical—if you decided to wait in the first place, why wouldn't you wait the whole way through?" Kable said.

This behavior was an intriguing puzzle for Kable; he studies how people make value-based decisions, especially when they require comparing the value of something in the present with something else in the future. But, in conducting his own variants of the marshmallow test, he found that a key fact had been glossed over in both popular and academic discussions: the children don't know how long they will have to wait.

"I didn't even know that there was uncertainty in the marshmallow test until we started trying to do that type of experiment ourselves on adults and weren't getting any interesting behavior," Kable said. "That the kids don't know how long it's going to be until the researcher returns changes the entire decision problem!"

This confusion may stem from the explanations provided for children's decisions in the marshmallow test. Some of the researchers who have employed the marshmallow test and its variants have hypothesized that participants' decision to eat the marshmallow could be attributed to a strong impulse overriding the original decision to wait, or that the ability to wait was drawing on a reserve of self control that is depleted over time. Since these hypotheses make the same predictions even when there is no uncertainty, the uncertainty was often downplayed.

Kable and McGuire's analysis of data from earlier marshmallow-test studies showed problems for these hypotheses, however. If reversing the decision to wait was a function of the wearing down of self control, the time at which children eat the first marshmallow should be clustered in the middle or towards the end of the waiting period. Instead, children who gave up waiting tended to do so within the first few minutes.

After this analysis, Kable and McGuire did their own survey-based research to see how people estimate the lengths of waiting times in different situations.

The researchers asked participants to imagine themselves in a variety of scenarios, such as watching a movie, practicing the piano or trying to lose weight. Participants were told the amount of time they had been at the activity and were asked to respond how long they thought it would be until they reached their goal or the end.

The results showed a marked difference between the scenario with a relatively well-defined length and those that were more ambiguous.

"Our intuition is that when we are waiting for something, the longer we wait the closer and closer we get to that thing, which is what we see when we ask people about familiar things, like how long a movie will last," Kable says. "But what we've found is that, if you don't know anything about when the outcome will occur, the longer you wait the more you think you're getting farther and farther away from that outcome."

While the marshmallow test remains a good predictor of who is better or worse at delaying gratification, Kable's research suggests the mechanism behind that ability needs to be reinterpreted. It may also suggest some tools and techniques people can use to improve , or at least become aware of situations where delaying gratification will be particularly challenging.

"This is exciting to us because it suggests a way to get people to persist to the end," Kable said. "Your previous experience and your expectations can change your behavior, so you need to give them experiences that provide them with the right kinds of expectations."

Explore further: The Marshmallow Study revisited: Delaying gratification depends as much on nurture as on nature

More information: psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=s … ID=1&page=1&dbTab=pa

Related Stories

The Marshmallow Study revisited: Delaying gratification depends as much on nurture as on nature

October 11, 2012
For the past four decades, the "marshmallow test" has served as a classic experimental measure of children's self-control: will a preschooler eat one of the fluffy white confections now or hold out for two later?

Children's self-control is associated with their body mass index as adults

August 16, 2012
As adults, we know that self-control and delaying gratification are important for making healthful eating choices, portion control, and maintaining a healthy weight. However, exhibiting these skills at a young age actually ...

Researchers determine region of the brain necessary for making decisions about economic value

May 18, 2011
Neuroeconomic research at the University of Pennsylvania has conclusively identified a part of the brain that is necessary for making everyday decisions about value. Previous functional magnetic imaging studies, during which ...

Study shows willpower traits appear to be lifelong for some people

August 30, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- In an interesting and unique study, researchers have followed up on an experiment conducted several decades ago designed to point out the varying levels of willpower in nursery school age children. Back ...

Recommended for you

Exposure to violence hinders short-term memory, cognitive control

July 24, 2017
Being exposed to and actively remembering violent episodes—even those that happened up to a decade before—hinders short-term memory and cognitive control, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National ...

Using money to buy time linked to increased happiness

July 24, 2017
New research is challenging the age-old adage that money can't buy happiness.

Researchers pave new path toward preventing obesity

July 24, 2017
People who experience unpredictable childhoods due to issues such as divorce, crime or frequent moves face a higher risk of becoming obese as adults, according to a new study by a Florida State University researcher.

Higher cognitive abilities linked to greater risk of stereotyping

July 24, 2017
People with higher cognitive abilities are more likely to learn and apply social stereotypes, finds a new study. The results, stemming from a series of experiments, show that those with higher cognitive abilities also more ...

Neuroticism may postpone death for some

July 24, 2017
Data from a longitudinal study of over 500,000 people in the United Kingdom indicate that having higher levels of the personality trait neuroticism may reduce the risk of death for individuals who report being in fair or ...

Psychologists say our 'attachment style' applies to social networks like Facebook

July 24, 2017
A new investigation appearing this week in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests a strong association between a person's attachment style—how avoidant or anxious people are in their close relationships—and ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.