Nature or Nurture? Self-Control or Childhood Experience?

Taking another look at the "Marshmallow Task"

Posted Jul 23, 2013

To eat the marshmallow or not?  That was the dilemma famously posed by Walter Mischel and his colleagues to a  large group of four-year-olds over forty years ago at Stanford University.  Each child was seated at a desk; there was a single marshmallow on a plate and, beside it, a bell.  The researcher then told the child she had to leave and the child was free to eat the marshmallow and ring the bell.  But, she promised, if the child waited until she came back, the reward would  be a second marshmallow. The wait, by the way, was fifteen to twenty minutes which is a very, very long time if you are four and there is a marshmallow sitting in front of you, absolutely begging to be eaten. 

Videos online testify to the agony and the anguish.  A few kids give in right away —they succumb to the temptation even as the door swings shut. Others touch and stroke the marshmallow lovingly, lick its edges, and then finally give in. But thirty percent of the children manage —by closing their eyes, covering their faces, fiddling with their hair and clothes, and otherwise distracting themselves —to hang in until the researcher comes back and get the coveted second marshmallow.

What ultimately put this experiment on the map is that Mischel and his colleagues tracked these kids through high school and after, and discovered that the kids who could resist the marshmallow for those fifteen minutes had a different skill set than their peers. They were better planners, had higher SAT scores, were more self-confident and could manage their frustrations better, and were more focused.  In short, the self-control they exhibited as four-year-olds was a reliable predictor of how much self-control they would have as adults. The marshmallow-resisters had a bright and shiny future which got educators and psychologists alike all excited about teaching willpower as a skill. (There was a small glitch, though, as the work of Roy Baumeister revealed; it turns out that willpower is a limited resource.  But that’s another story.)  

But does the experiment only measure self-control? Perhaps not. What if, as Celeste Kidd and her colleagues hypothesized, your decision to gobble or wait had as much to do with your beliefs about how the world works and people act as anything else? How much of your decision about the marshmallow hinged on other factors —your belief that the researcher will actually keep her promise and give you a second marshmallow, for example, or your assessment that no one else in the room will take your marshmallow and eat it if you don’t?  Is it your self-control or your view of the world that’s being tested?

That’s exactly what Kidd and her colleagues wanted to find out.  In their study, the marshmallow task was preceded by an art project, one involving crayons and the other stickers.  The experimenter produced a worn-out set of crayons and then gave the child the choice of using them or waiting for a brand-new set. For the second project, the researcher produced one small sticker and then gave the child the choice of using it or waiting for a new set of multiple stickers. In each case, the children were confronted with a reliable or unreliable experimenter. The reliable experimenter delivered on her promise (a fancy tray of art supplies or brand-new and abundant stickers) while the unreliable one came back, apologizing, saying there’d been a mistake and the child would have to make do with the crummy crayons or single sticker.  

The children were then given the marshmallow task, and the results were revelatory. The kids who’d discovered the experimenter was unreliable waited a mean of three minutes before eating the marshmallow; those in the reliable situation waited twelve. More important, only 1 out of 14 children waited the full fifteen minutes in the unreliable situation and got the second marshmallow; 9 out of the 14 in the reliable situation waited the fifteen minutes and got the second marshmallow.  

While the researchers don’t talk about attachment in their article—they talk about unreliability — I think all of this makes terrific sense. As I’ve already written in an earlier blog post —“Daughters of Unloving Mothers: 7 Common Wounds”—attachment theory explains a great deal about human behavior, and perhaps the ability to exert self-control is yet another area where what we learn at the beginning affects both our abilities and mindsets. To a small child, an emotionally unreliable or inconsistent or cruel parent doesn’t just demonstrate her or his nature, but the nature of the world and relationships.  If you’re used to broken promises, it makes sense that you’d eat that marshmallow pronto.

So, for the seventy percent of you who have trouble resisting the temptation of the marshmallow, it may not just be about self-control after all. You may have to understand how the past, your past, still motivates your behavior. To resist the marshmallow, rewrite your own script.

Copyright © 2013 Peg Streep

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 Shoda, Yuichi Walter Mischel, and Philip K. Peake, “ Predicting Adolescent Cognitive and Self-Regulatory Competencies from Preschool Delay of Gratification: Identifying Diagnostic Conditions,” Developmental Psychology 16, no.6 (1990): 978-986.

Baumeister, Roy F., Ellen Bratslavasky, Mark Muraven, and Dianne M. Tice. “Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, no.5 (1998): 1252-1265.

Kidd, Celeste, Holly Palmiere, and Richard N. Astin. “ Rational Snacking: Young Children’s decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability.” Cognition, 126 (2013), 109-114.