No correlation between a child’s delayed gratification and teen behaviour – study
The “marshmallow test” has intrigued a generation of parents and educationalists with its promise that a young child’s willpower and self-control holds a key to their success in later life.
But there is some good news for parents of pre-schoolers whose impulse control is nonexistent: the latest research suggests the claims of the marshmallow test are close to being a fluffy confection.
The results, according to the researchers who carried out the new study, mean that parents, schools and nurseries could be wasting time if they try to coach their children to delay gratification.
In the original research, by Stanford University psychologist Walter Mischel in the 1960s and 1970s, children aged between three and five years old were given a marshmallow that they could eat immediately, but told that if they resisted eating it for 10 minutes, they would be rewarded with two marshmallows.
According to Mischel and colleagues in a follow-up study in 1990, the results were profound for children who had the willpower to wait for the extra marshmallow. More than a decade later, in their late teens, those children exhibited advanced traits of intelligence and behaviour far above those who caved in to temptation.
Now, though, there is relief for the parents of the many children who would gobble down a marshmallow before the lab door was closed, after academics from New York University and the University of California-Irvine tried and largely failed to replicate the earlier research, in a paper published earlier this week.
The new research by Tyler Watts, Greg Duncan and Hoanan Quen, published in Psychological Science, found that there were still benefits for the children who were able to hold out for a larger reward, but the effects were nowhere near as significant as those found by Mischel, and even those largely disappeared at age 15 once family and parental education were accounted for.
“Our results show that once background characteristics of the child and their environment are taken into account, differences in the ability to delay gratification do not necessarily translate into meaningful differences later in life,” Watts said.
“So, if you looked at our results, you probably would decide that you should not put too much stock in a child’s ability to delay at an early age.”
In the decades since Mischel’s work the marshmallow test has permeated middle-class parenting advice and educational psychology, with a message that improving a child’s self-ability to delay gratification would have tangible benefits.
The ones with willpower “yielded less to temptation; were less distractible when trying to concentrate; were more intelligent, self-reliant, and confident; and trusted their own judgment,” Mischel later wrote, offering a prize for middle-class parents in an era marked by parental anxiety and “Tiger Moms”.
But Watts, a scholar at the Steinhardt school of culture, education and human development at NYU, says the test results are no longer so straightforward.
“I think the test is still a very illuminating measure of children’s ability to delay gratification. There is no doubt that Mischel’s work has left an indelible mark on the way we think about young children and their cognitive and socioemotional development,” Watts said.
“But our study suggests that the predictive ability of the test should probably not be overstated. In other words, if you are the parent of a four-year-old, and they reach for the marshmallow without waiting, you should not be too concerned.”
The updated version of the marshmallow test – in which the children were able to choose their own treats, including chocolate – studied 900 children, with the sample adjusted to make it more reflective of US society, including 500 whose mothers had not gone on to higher education.
Mischel’s original research used children of Stanford University staff, while the followup study included fewer than 50 children from which Mischel and colleagues formed their conclusions.
Most surprising, according to Tyler, was that the revisited test failed to replicate the links with behaviour that Mischel’s work found, meaning that a child’s ability to resist a sweet treat aged four or five didn’t necessarily lead to a well-adjusted teenager a decade later.
“We found virtually no correlation between performance on the marshmallow test and a host of adolescent behavioural outcomes. I thought that this was the most surprising finding of the paper,” Watts said.
“It suggests that the ability to delay gratification, and possibly self-control, may not be a stable trait. It certainly opens up new avenues for inquiry.”
Robert Coe, professor of education at Durham University, said the marshmallow test had permeated the public conscience because it was a simple experiment with a powerful result.
“It will never die, despite being debunked, that’s the problem. Parenting books 10 or 20 years from now will still be quoting it, and not the evidence against it,” Coe said.
Source: The Guardian