Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Quitting marshmallow test can be a rational decision

Date:
March 26, 2013
Source:
University of Pennsylvania
Summary:
A psychological experiment known as "the marshmallow test" has captured the public's imagination as a marker of self control. This test shows how well children can delay gratification, a trait that has been shown to be as important to scholastic performance as traditional IQ. New research suggests, however, that changing one's mind about delaying gratification can be a rational decision in situations when the timing of the payoff is uncertain.

A psychological experiment known as "the marshmallow test" has captured the public's imagination as a marker of self control and even as a predictor of future success. This test shows how well children can delay gratification, a trait that has been shown to be as important to scholastic performance as traditional IQ.

Related Articles


New research from University of Pennsylvania psychologists suggests, however, that changing one's mind about delaying gratification can be a rational decision in situations when the timing of the payoff is uncertain.

The research was conducted by assistant professor Joseph Kable and postdoctoral researcher Joseph McGuire, both of the Department of Psychology in Penn's School of Arts and Sciences.

The study was published in the journal Psychological Review.

In the classic marshmallow test, researchers give children a choice between one marshmallow and two. After the children enthusiastically choose two, the experimenter says that they need to leave for "a few minutes" or "a little while." The children are also told that, if they can hold off eating the one marshmallow until the researcher returns, they can have the two marshmallows they prefer. With the children left alone in the room, hidden cameras track how long they resist temptation. Most try to wait but end up caving within a few minutes.

"The kids' responses seem illogical -- if you decided to wait in the first place, why wouldn't you wait the whole way through?" Kable said.

This behavior was an intriguing puzzle for Kable; he studies how people make value-based decisions, especially when they require comparing the value of something in the present with something else in the future. But, in conducting his own variants of the marshmallow test, he found that a key fact had been glossed over in both popular and academic discussions: the children don't know how long they will have to wait.

"I didn't even know that there was uncertainty in the marshmallow test until we started trying to do that type of experiment ourselves on adults and weren't getting any interesting behavior," Kable said. "That the kids don't know how long it's going to be until the researcher returns changes the entire decision problem!"

This confusion may stem from the explanations provided for children's decisions in the marshmallow test. Some of the researchers who have employed the marshmallow test and its variants have hypothesized that participants' decision to eat the marshmallow could be attributed to a strong impulse overriding the original decision to wait, or that the ability to wait was drawing on a reserve of self control that is depleted over time. Since these hypotheses make the same predictions even when there is no uncertainty, the uncertainty was often downplayed.

Kable and McGuire's analysis of data from earlier marshmallow-test studies showed problems for these hypotheses, however. If reversing the decision to wait was a function of the wearing down of self control, the time at which children eat the first marshmallow should be clustered in the middle or towards the end of the waiting period. Instead, children who gave up waiting tended to do so within the first few minutes.

After this analysis, Kable and McGuire did their own survey-based research to see how people estimate the lengths of waiting times in different situations.

The researchers asked participants to imagine themselves in a variety of scenarios, such as watching a movie, practicing the piano or trying to lose weight. Participants were told the amount of time they had been at the activity and were asked to respond how long they thought it would be until they reached their goal or the end.

The results showed a marked difference between the scenario with a relatively well-defined length and those that were more ambiguous.

"Our intuition is that when we are waiting for something, the longer we wait the closer and closer we get to that thing, which is what we see when we ask people about familiar things, like how long a movie will last," Kable says. "But what we've found is that, if you don't know anything about when the outcome will occur, the longer you wait the more you think you're getting farther and farther away from that outcome."

While the marshmallow test remains a good predictor of who is better or worse at delaying gratification, Kable's research suggests the mechanism behind that ability needs to be reinterpreted. It may also suggest some tools and techniques people can use to improve self control, or at least become aware of situations where delaying gratification will be particularly challenging.

"This is exciting to us because it suggests a way to get people to persist to the end," Kable said. "Your previous experience and your expectations can change your behavior, so you need to give them experiences that provide them with the right kinds of expectations."

The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Pennsylvania. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

University of Pennsylvania. "Quitting marshmallow test can be a rational decision." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 March 2013. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/03/130326194138.htm>.
University of Pennsylvania. (2013, March 26). Quitting marshmallow test can be a rational decision. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 3, 2015 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/03/130326194138.htm
University of Pennsylvania. "Quitting marshmallow test can be a rational decision." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/03/130326194138.htm (accessed March 3, 2015).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Mind & Brain News

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

This Nasal Treatment Could Help Ease Migraine Pain

This Nasal Treatment Could Help Ease Migraine Pain

Newsy (Mar. 2, 2015) Researchers gave lidocaine to 112 patients, and about 88 percent of the subjects said they needed less migraine-relief medicine the next day. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
How Facebook Use Can Lead To Depression

How Facebook Use Can Lead To Depression

Newsy (Mar. 1, 2015) Margaret Duffy of the University of Missouri talks about her study on the social network and the envy and depression that Facebook use can cause. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
The Best Foods to Battle Stress

The Best Foods to Battle Stress

Buzz60 (Feb. 26, 2015) If you&apos;re dealing with anxiety, there are a few foods that can help. Krystin Goodwin (@krystingoodwin) has the best foods to tame stress. Video provided by Buzz60
Powered by NewsLook.com
Sleeping Too Much Or Too Little Might Increase Stroke Risk

Sleeping Too Much Or Too Little Might Increase Stroke Risk

Newsy (Feb. 26, 2015) People who sleep more than eight hours per night are 45 percent more likely to have a stroke, according to a University of Cambridge study. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Health & Medicine

Mind & Brain

Living & Well

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins