Toddlers Outsmart Psychologists
You can’t put a kid in a test tube. There’s more going on in a little brain than psychologists dreamt of in their philosophy.
Scientists at UC San Diego found out that a famous psychology experiment is not measuring what they thought it did. You may have heard of “The Marshmallow Test.”
In the marshmallow test, young children are given one marshmallow and told they can eat it right away or, if they wait a while, while nobody is watching, they can have two marshmallows instead. The half-century-old test is quite well-known. It’s entered everyday speech, and you may have chuckled at an online video or two in which children struggle adorably on hidden camera with the temptation of an immediate treat.
You can either watch the adorable video in the article now or wait to the end of this article and watch a second video, too (this is a test). Psychologists have been using this test for decades, thinking that it was a test of self-control. From this test, the scientists believed they could predict the child’s success in life. Those able to control the temptation to immediate self-gratification are expected to perform better in many life situations, such as the ability to forego a pleasure now in order to save for larger benefits later.
But the real reason the test is famous (and infamous) is because researchers have shown that the ability to wait – to delay gratification in order to get a bigger reward later – is associated with a range of positive life outcomes far down the line, including better stress tolerance and higher SAT scores more than a decade later.
Alas, it is more complicated than that. In the minds of those children—invisible to the scientists—complex strategies are being calculated by young brains weighing more than the sweet taste of that marshmallow. This became evident when additional information was told to the children. The other skill is “reputation management” – another important life skill.
“The classic marshmallow test has shaped the way researchers think about the development of self-control, which is an important skill,” said Gail Heyman, a University of California San Diego professor of psychology and lead author on the study. “Our new research suggests that in addition to measuring self-control, the task may also be measuring another important skill: awareness of what other people value.”
Additional marshmallow tests on 273 children were conducted by UCSD and Chinese scientists. They informed one group of kids that the teacher would hear about the outcome. They told others that their peers would hear about it. A control group was given the standard test without additional information.
Children waited longer in both the teacher and peer conditions than in the standard condition. The difference was about twice as great in the teacher condition as compared to the peer condition. The researchers interpret these results to mean that when children decide how long to wait, they make a cost-benefit analysis that takes into account the possibility of getting a social reward in the form of a boost to their reputation. These findings suggest that the desire to impress others is strong and can motivate human behavior starting at a very young age.
Did the psychologists expect this? “The researchers were surprised by their findings because the traditional view is that 3- and 4-year-olds are too young to care what care what other people think of them.”
This makes sense in hindsight. Everyone knows what it is like to want to be respected and liked. Psychologists for a half-century did not realize how early this desire originates in a child’s mind. The kids outwitted the psychologists.
Data do not interpret themselves. Here’s a reminder that scientists can believe simplistic things for a long time. Maybe it’s because of peer pressure and lack of self-control on the scientist’s part. It’s easy to jump to conclusions, like “The marshmallow test is a measure of self control.” That turns out to be only part of the story. The desire for acceptance by authority figures, and to a lesser extent by peers, may be even stronger. Who put the ability for cost-benefit analysis in a 3-year old brain?
The new findings show that even children are constantly perusing the world around them, noticing what adults value, and watching how other children respond. This implies that media also have a profound influence on shaping what a child comes to believe is interesting or important. Parents and teachers have a small window of time to filter out corrupting influences and reward children for self control and the right kind of social rewards. Did you wait? You can now get a chuckle out of the video in the article, and then see a second funny video at the link below.