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Revisiting the Marshmallow Test

New research finds kids' ability to delay gratification is influenced by the norms of their peer group.

Remember the marshmallow test? Stanford University researchers in the early 1960s offered young children a choice between one sweet treat they could immediately eat, or two they could enjoy after a short wait. They found those who took the second option ultimately got higher test scores, and generally had more successful lives.

That ability to delay gratification is usually described as an internal trait, perhaps enhanced by proper parenting. But new research suggests another element is also at play.

It reports kids faced with this now-or-later dilemma are strongly influenced by their peers' pattern of behavior.

In two experiments, "young children were more likely to delay gratification and value it when their group delayed, and another group did not," report University of Colorado–Boulder psychologists Sabine Doebel and Yuko Munakata. That suggests this crucial capacity is influenced not just by one's inner strength, but also by group values.

In the journal Psychological Science, the researchers describe two studies featuring preschoolers. In the first, 90 three- and four-year-olds were randomly assigned to either the "green group" or the "orange group." They wore T-shirts in their group's color, and were shown photos of fellow group members.

Following this orientation, each child was told it was snack time. He or she was given the option of eating one marshmallow right away, or two "if you wait for me to go get more from the other room."

The experimenter then walked out of the room, purportedly to find more marshmallows. The child, left alone with the single small snack, was observed for 15 minutes to see if he or she could resist temptation.

Before exiting, the experimenter pulled out a picture of the child's group members and pointed to it. She told some kids that members of their group (unlike their counterparts) successfully waited, and were rewarded with two marshmallows. Others were told the opposite, while still others were told nothing about their fellow group members' performance.

"Children whose group waited for two marshmallows had nearly twice the odds of resisting the (single) marshmallow," the researchers report. In contrast, the news that their group did not wait did not significantly influence their behavior.

The second, similarly structured experiment, featuring 87 three- to five-year-olds, replicated and expanded upon those results.

Again, children who were told their group delayed gratification (and the other group did not) "waited longer, and subsequently preferred new individuals who delayed gratification," the researchers report. This suggests they internalized self-control as a value that was important to their group, and therefore to themselves.

These findings suggest teaching kids to delay gratification might be most effective in a communal setting. "Interventions to improve self-control could be conducted in a group format," Doebel and Munakata write. "Self-control could be promoted as a group value."

Perhaps it takes a village to pass up a marshmallow.