John Protzko

Would you eat the marshmallow?

Posted on | December 4, 2015 | No Comments

Your ability to delay gratification, to forego the immediate in anticipation of later rewards, is an important predictor of life success.

Children who have better self-control grow up into adults who have less financial troubles, are less likely to be convicted of a crime, are less likely to start smoking, less likely to drop out of school, less likely to become teenage parents, have better health, the list goes on.

What’s more, this trait is highly stable, children who have good self-control grow up into adults who also have good self-control.

The paradigmatic marshmallow test is one way to determine a child’s level of self-control/their ability to delay gratification.

The task is simple, you put a child in a room with a marshmallow (or some other candy). You then tell them you will be right back. They can eat the marshmallow, but if they wait until you come back they can have two.

The longer a child waits, the better their self-control.

New research from the University of Manchester has discovered a way to improve this ability in children.

The technique involved training attention. Specifically, children listened to audio tracks of background noises and were instructed to turn their attention to one sound or another.

A few days of this training and children were better able to wait for the experimenter come back instead of eating the marshmallow. In fact, the training made a child 2.64 times more likely to wait than if they hadn’t been trained.

There was no record in the published manuscript about how long each of the experimental groups lasted on average.

Accepting that delay of gratification can be increased, the next question is: what does this mean for these children?

The training materials are different enough from the marshmallow test that I would argue, the authors may have truly increased delay of gratification abilities (opposed to simply teaching to the test).

If the research on the predictive ability of self-control and life success is indeed causal, this branch of research could make great strides in improving the lives of children, especially at-risk ones.

It may turn out, however, that the relationship between self-control and life success is not causal. This new attention training technique may allow us to understand the causal effects of self-control in life outcomes.

The permanency of the effects, along with transfer, would be great strides in understanding self-control in everyday life.


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