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The Marshmallow Study Revisited

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Published on Oct 11, 2012

For the past four decades, the "marshmallow test" has served as a classic experimental measure of children's self-control: will a preschooler eat one of the fluffy white confections now or hold out for two later? The original research began at Stanford University in the late 1960s. Walter Mischel and other researchers famously showed that individual differences in the ability to delay gratification on this simple task correlated strongly with success in later life. Longer wait times as a child were linked years later to higher SAT scores, less substance abuse, and parental reports of better social skills.

Researchers at the University of Rochester wanted to explore more closely why some preschoolers are able to resist the marshmallow while others succumb to licking, nibbling, and eventually swallowing the sugary treat. The researchers assigned 28 three- to five-year-olds to two contrasting environments: unreliable and reliable. The study results were so strong that a larger sample group was not required to ensure statistical accuracy and other factors, like the influence of hunger, were accounted for by randomly assigning participants to the two groups, according to the researchers. In both groups the children were given a create-your-own-cup kit and asked to decorate the blank paper that would be inserted in the cup.

In the unreliable condition, the children were provided a container of used crayons and told that if they could wait, the researcher would return shortly with a bigger and better set of new art supplies for their project. After two and a half minutes, the researcher returned with this explanation: "I'm sorry, but I made a mistake. We don't have any other art supplies after all. But why don't you use these instead?" She then helped to open the crayon container.

Next a quarter-inch sticker was placed on the table and the child was told that if he or she could wait, the researcher would return with a large selection of better stickers to use. After the same wait, the researcher again returned empty handed.

The reliable group experienced the same set up, but the researcher returned with the promised materials: first with a rotating tray full of art supplies and the next time with five to seven large, die-cut stickers.

The marshmallow task followed, with the explanation that the child could have "one marshmallow right now. Or -- if you can wait for me to get more marshmallows from the other room -- you can have two marshmallows to eat instead." The researcher removed the art supplies and placed a single marshmallow in a small desert dish four inches from the table's edge directly in front of the child. From an adjoining room, the researchers and the parent observed through a computer video camera until the first taste or 15 minutes had lapsed, whichever came first. All children then received three additional marshmallows.

Children who experienced unreliable interactions with an experimenter waited for a mean time of three minutes and two seconds on the subsequent marshmallow task, while youngsters who experienced reliable interactions held out for 12 minutes and two seconds. Only one of the 14 children in the unreliable group waited the full 15 minutes, compared to nine children in the reliable condition.

To learn more about the Rochester Baby Lab and other research being done there, please visit http://babylab.bcs.rochester.edu.

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