Would your child eat one marshmallow now, or wait an unspecified amount of time to receive two?
The famous marshmallow test has been used for more than 50 years to test the self-control of children. So do you think children today are more or less patient than children in the 1960s?
We live in a society filled with instantly gratifying solutions, where children born into an internet-filled world can immediately gain access to entertainment, purchase products and interact with others.
Has this new way of obtaining gratifying experiences led to children being more or less patient now when compared to children brought up 50 years ago?
To try to answer this, new research published by the American Psychological Association analysed results from a series of marshmallow test studies that had been carried out on different occasions from the beginning.
The test is simple – take children between 3 and 5 years of age and offer them a tasty treat such as a marshmallow. Explain that they can either eat this treat immediately or wait to receive a larger treat.
Leave the children alone in a room with their treat for 10 minutes. Watch the children through a one-way mirror to see if they choose to eat the treat immediately or wait for a larger reward.
The marshmallow test has been thought to help predict the outcomes of children, and follow up studies have shown that those who were able to wait longer for a second marshmallow showed healthier body weights, higher academic achievement and more effective coping mechanisms with stress in later life.
Many of us think that things were better in our day and reminisce around how our childhoods were simpler and less distracting in comparison to today's children. To study our perception as members of the public, the researchers interviewed 350 people from a range of backgrounds about their thoughts on child behaviour.
The results showed that 72 per cent of the people interviewed predicted that today's children would not wait as long for a marshmallow and 75 per cent thought that today's children had less self-control than children from the 1960s.
Interestingly, the marshmallow test results showed the opposite to be true.
Children tested in the 2000s waited one minute longer than children from the 1980s and two minutes longer than children tested in the 1960s.
The researchers believe that this could partly be due to the significant increase in kindergarten attendance from 15 per cent to more than 50 per cent as well as the increase in IQ scores over the last several decades.
So does this mean that modern children are more likely to achieve higher academic and career success thanks to their increased marshmallow resistance?
Another new study published in Psychological Science dug deeper into the research that showed children who resisted the marshmallows ended up attaining higher high school grades and a lower body mass index in adolescence.
They found that the ability to wait for a treat at a young age was actually affected by the child's social and economic background, which then went on to shape their long-term chances of success.
So, rather than the marshmallow test predicting the amount of success a child may have based on their self-control, it seems like the test actually just shows how children from affluent households are more likely to wait as they believe that more treats will come, and children from poorer households have been conditioned to eat now as there may not be food tomorrow.
It seems that the humble marshmallow might show that children today are more patient, but that self-control alone can't overcome social and economic disadvantages.
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