“The Marshmallow Test” was designed by Stanford Psychologist Walter Mischel in the 1960s. It’s a test of a kid’s ability to delay gratification – to wait for something they really want. The ability to delay gratification has been correlated with a number of successful outcomes, including doing better at school, getting higher SATs and being less likely to end up in prison. So how can parents improve their child’s ability to delay gratification? The following study could help answer this question.
When kids take the marshmallow test, they sit in a room by themselves and they are given a marshmallow. The researcher tells them that if they wait ten minutes, they can get a second marshmallow. This is a test of their ability to delay gratification. Studies have found that kids who can wait for the bigger reward when they are younger grow up to do better in school, are better able to cope with stress and less likely to take drugs (Ayduk et al., 2000). Most of these studies have taken place in the USA and other Western countries. So what happens when we compare kids across cultures? This was the aim of Lamm et al.’s 2018 study.
This study can be used to show how enculturation can affect behaviour. Enculturation is the process of acquiring and learning the norms and values of one’s “home culture.” This process of learning the norms of one’s culture can happen in many ways, including through parents, friends, family, school and the media. The following example shows how the different values that parents have can influence our behaviour.
- How do we “explain enculturation”?
- What is “enculturation?”
- Exam Question Bank: Paper 1: Sociocultural Approach
Marshmallow experiments – a cross-cultural comparison (Lamm et al. 2018)
This particular study compared the ability of German and Cameroonian four-year-old preschool children to delay gratification and wait for a treat. The Cameroonian children did not have marshmallows, but instead were given a similar treat that is popular for Cameroonian kids (a small puff pastry).
In the first of two studies, the results showed that almost 70% of the Cameroonian kids were able to wait for a treat, compared to around 30% of German kids. They also noted some other interesting patterns in behaviour:
Only 1/3 of the Cameroonian children tasted the treat, compared to 1/2 of the German kids (giving it just a nibble).
Only one Cameroonian child left the room to terminate the delay period ahead of time, but 1/4 of the German middle-class children did this.
8 Cameronian kids fell asleep during the delay, but this didn’t happen to any German kids.
The researchers also gathered data on the values of the parents and their parenting styles in a second study. They found that Cameroonian mothers placed more emphasis on “hierarchical relational socialization” (e.g. obeying and respecting elders) and they placed strict emphasis on conforming to social norms. The German mothers, on the other hand, had more emphasis on “psychological autonomous socialization,” which means they allowed more individuality and personal freedom.
The second study also found a statistically significant positive correlation (0.25) between the values placed on hierarchy by the mothers (i.e. they wanted them to obey elders and follow rules) and the child’s ability to delay gratification.
Conclusions and Applications
Enculturation: This study provides us with another example of how different enculturation processes (e.g. different parenting styles and values) can have an effect on the behaviour of children. Perhaps the Cameroonian kids are better at waiting for a treat because they are used to following rules given to them. If they are used to not always being able to do what they want right away, waiting will be easier. On the other hand, if the German kids are used to having more autonomy and freedom and being able to do what they want, they will find it harder to wait because this may not be something they have to do often. Here we see the parents values have been passed on to the kids and this has affected their behaviour (their ability to delay gratification).
Culture and Behaviour: This study also provides a simple demonstration of how different cultural values can have an influence on behaviour.
Critical Thinking Considerations
- The study showed a correlation, yes, but it was 0.25. Why is this an important detail?
- Longitudinal studies on Western kids have correlated the ability to delay gratification (waiting for the second treat) with success later in life. Do these results suggest that the Cameroonian kids will grow up to be more successful than their German counter-parts? Why or why not?
- From these results it seems logical to conclude that being more strict with kids will help them be successful. What are the limitations in drawing this conclusion from this study?
- How does this study highlight the benefits of using multiple research methods in a single study? (It is a quasi-experimental design, gathers correlations, uses questionnaires, observations and interviews).
Bettina Lamm, Heidi Keller, Johanna Teiser, Helene Gudi, Relindis D. Yovsi, Claudia Freitag, Sonja Poloczek, Ina Fassbender, Janina Suhrke, Manuel Teubert, Isabel Vöhringer, Monika Knopf, Gudrun Schwarzer, Arnold Lohaus. Waiting for the Second Treat: Developing Culture-Specific Modes of Self-Regulation. Child Development. First published: 6 June 2017. DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12847
Travis Dixon is an IB Psychology teacher, author, workshop leader, examiner and IA moderator.