The importance of nature — one’s genetic makeup — versus nurture — the type of environment someone grows up in — has always been a contentious issue.One of the most important studies indicated that nature plays a large role in how successful someone is in their life. The 1972 Stanford “Marshmallow study” found that a kid’s ability to wait for a larger reward (two marshmallows) instead of taking an immediate small one (a single marshmallow) was correlated to their success later in life.
That study placed these young kids’ intrinsic “self-control” in the centre of the study’s conclusions, finding that the kids with the self-control to wait for a larger reward do better on the SATs, have fewer substance abuse problems and have better social skills later in life.
Because of the surprising correlation, the landmark marshmallow studies have been cited as evidence that qualities like self-control or emotional intelligence in general may be more important to navigating life successfully than more traditional measures of intelligence, such as IQ.
This experiment has spawned tons of writing and studies on the subject of self-control, including the idea that lower-income people stay low income because they don’t have self-control. A story on Business Insider from just last year suggested that all the 99% needs is a little willpower to succeed.
The new study, published Oct 11 in the journal Cognition, turns this conclusion on its head. By manipulating the pre-marshmallow environment — indicating to the kid that the researchers are more or less likely to follow through with their promises — they changed the results.
When interacting with a reliable experimenter, one who had previously followed through with their promises, the kids waited four times longer (12 minutes instead of 3 minutes).
“I was astounded that the effect was so large,” study researcher Richard Aslin said in a statement from the University of Rochester. “I thought that we might get a difference of maybe a minute or so… You don’t see effects like this very often.”
Good choices for a bad environment
When the outcome isn’t certain, for instance when you are dealing with an unreliable person, taking the initial offering would actually be a good choice, the researchers said. It would be a rational decision because the person might decide to take the marshmallow away or the second marshmallow might never come.
“Our results definitely temper the popular perception that marshmallow-like tasks are very powerful diagnostics for self-control capacity,” study researcher Celeste Kidd said in the same statement. “Delaying gratification is only the rational choice if the child believes a second marshmallow is likely to be delivered after a reasonably short delay.”
But, the catch is, if a kid grows up in an unstable home they are probably less likely to believe that waiting will improve their situation, and so would be more likely to take the immediate reward, regardless of how strong their willpower is. Previous studies have shown that children who grow up without their fathers around seem to prefer immediate rewards over long-term, larger ones.
“If you are used to getting things taken away from you, not waiting is the rational choice” Kidd said. “It occurred to me that the marshmallow task might be correlated with something else that the child already knows — like having a stable environment.”
Click the video below to see some adorable kids eating marshmallows:
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