Tuesday, September 6, 2016

When It Makes More Sense to Eat the Marshmallow

Almost everyone has heard of the marshmallow test. Researchers left small children in a room with a marshmallow. They told them – if you wait to eat the marshmallow, I’ll give you two when I get back. Then they watched what happened. Some children ate the marshmallow as soon as the door clicked behind the researcher. Others resisted the urge with a variety of (adorable) strategies. A follow up study of the children showed that the marshmallow resisters – the ones who could delay gratification for a better reward through self-control – were more successful in the future. Schools have begun to spend a lot of time parsing how best to develop this capacity in children.

Then Celeste Kidd thought differently. She was volunteering at a homeless shelter and began to wonder – what if one of these children were given a treat and told to wait before they ate it? Could their likely quick gobbling be explained by a theory of self-control?  She thought that expectations would play a bigger role. These children might expect to have their treat stolen – a big risk in a homeless shelter – and they might not expect adults to follow through on their promises – a big risk when adults are suffering. For these children, then, the most rational choice would be to eat the marshmallow right away. That is, it isn’t that they lack self-control, but rather that they are making the most sensible choice given the situation.

She decided to test her hypothesis by adding another element to the marshmallow test. She began with an art project. The children were given an old used crayon package and told they could use those to draw a picture or wait until the researcher returned with a brand-new set of exciting art supplies. All the children waited. After a brief delay, the researcher returned either with the promised set or without it, apologizing and saying, ‘‘I’m sorry, but I made a mistake. We don’t have any other art supplies after all. But why don’t you just use these used ones instead?’’ Then the marshmallow test was done. As usual, the children were given a marshmallow and told that they would get two if they could wait. Children who experienced the unreliable researcher who did not bring art supplies waited on average only 3 minutes. Children with the reliable researcher waited an average of 12 minutes. In other words, the children quickly learned to adapt their expectations from their experiences and acted accordingly.

It makes me wonder how many of the conclusions we draw about children are misguided. We keep trying to look inside for their motivations, aptitudes, and abilities, when we need merely look more often outside and ask what prompts their actions. Perhaps then, we might begin to break the cycle of expectations that closes around the children who can expect little (why wait? why ask for help? why try?); teachers, seeing their “lack of self-control” expect less of them. And so it goes - unless we see things differently.

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