A new study from Cognition complicates the traditional “marshmallow test” of children’s impulse control. In the original test, children are told they can eat one marshmallow now or wait (usually about 15 minutes) and get two marshmallows by showing restraint. The initial interpretation of this test suggested that children who were able to exercise self-control were more likely to be successful later in life; Maia Szalavitz writes in TIME Magazine that “This apparently trivial challenge has serious implications, however. Children who are able to restrain themselves the longest in the marshmallow test are generally those who end up more successful later on in life: they grow up to achieve higher SAT scores (a 210 point difference), earn higher incomes, and have a lower chance of obesity, a lower risk of drug misuse and better health overall.”
The new study changes the experiment by promising the child-subjects a reward for waiting and then delivering inconsistently; sometimes the proffered treat shows up, and sometimes an adult arrives without it just to disappoint them. When completing the marshmallow challenge later on, the disappointed children were less likely to show restraint. As the Cognition summary highlights,
• Children wait longer in the marshmallow task when the experimenter is reliable.
• Children’s behavior on this task is likely influenced by rational factors.
• Self-control is not the sole determinant in delay-of-gratification success.
This complicated version of the experiment illustrates the importance of the adults who help establish the context in which children learn self-control and trust.
Even the most well-intentioned grownups cannot avoid disappointing children all the time (nor, if that were possible, would it seem desirable, as disappointment is something children need to learn to cope with just like temptation). Yet the study sheds light on the relationship between self-control and environmental predictability and demonstrates how much influence a stable situation can have on children’s immediate and long-term impulse control. In a world filled with unknowns, parents and caregivers can offer children a safe haven, someplace where love and nurture are consistent even if we sometimes run out of marshmallows. Inasmuch as this test showcases children’s complex decision-making, it also serves as a reminder for adults to serve as trustworthy anchors who can model security even in a world filled with temptation, disappointment, and an inadequate supply of marshmallows.