Summary: In a twist on the classic marshmallow test of delay of gratification, researchers found children will wait almost twice as long for a reward if they are told another person will find out how long they have waited.
If you asked people to name a famous psychology study, the “marshmallow test” would probably come out near the top of the list. In this task, young children are told they can immediately get a small reward (one marshmallow) or wait to get a bigger reward (two marshmallows). Researchers have shown that the ability to wait is associated with a range of positive life outcomes, including higher SAT scores more than a decade later.
A new study published in the journal Psychological Science expands on this earlier research and shows that young children will wait nearly twice as long for a reward if they are told their teacher will find out how long they wait.
“The classic marshmallow test has shaped the way researchers think about the development of self-control, which is an important skill,” said Gail Heyman, a professor at the University of California San Diego and lead author on the study.
“Our new research suggests that in addition to measuring self-control, the task may also be measuring another important skill: awareness of what other people value. In fact, one reason for the predictive power of delay-of-gratification tasks may be that the children who wait longer care more about what people around them value, or are better at figuring it out.”
For their study, Heyman and her colleagues from UC San Diego and Zhejiang Sci-Tech University conducted two experiments with a total of 273 3- to 4-year-old children in China.
The researchers told the children that they could earn a small reward immediately or wait for a bigger one. Children were assigned to one of three conditions: a “teacher” condition, in which they were told that their teacher would find out how long they wait; a “peer” condition, in which they were told that a classmate would find out how long they wait; or a “standard” condition that had no special instructions.
Children waited longer in the teacher and peer conditions than in the standard condition, and they waited about twice as long in the teacher condition as compared to the peer condition.
The researchers interpreted the results to mean that when children decide how long to wait, they make a cost-benefit analysis that takes into account the possibility of getting a social reward in the form of a boost to their reputation. These findings suggest that the desire to impress others is strong and can motivate human behavior starting at a very young age.
The researchers were surprised by their findings because the traditional view is that 3- and 4-year-olds are too young to care about what other people think of them.
“The children waited longer in the teacher and peer conditions even though no one directly told them that it’s good to wait longer,” said Heyman. “We believe that children are good at making these kinds of inferences because they are constantly on the lookout for cues about what people around them value. This may take the form of carefully listening to the evaluative comments that parents and teachers make, or noticing what kinds of people and topics are getting attention in the media.”
The study’s co-authors are Fengling Ma, Dan Zeng and Fen Xu from Zhejiang Sci-Tech University; and Brian J. Compton from the University of California San Diego.
The contributions of Fengling Ma were supported by grants from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31400892), the Natural Science Foundation of Zhejiang Province (LY17C090010), and the China Scholarship Council.
Although delay-of-gratification tasks have long been used as measures of self-control, recent evidence suggests that performance on these tasks is also driven by rational decision processes. The present research examined whether the effects of rational decision processes extend beyond costs and benefits embedded in the task itself to include anticipated consequences for the child’s reputation. Across two studies, 3- and 4-year-olds from China (N = 273) were assigned to a standard delay-of-gratification condition or to a reputation condition in which they were told that their teacher or a peer would find out how long they had waited. Children waited longer in the reputation conditions and longer in the teacher condition than in the peer condition. This is the first evidence that children’s performance on a delay-of-gratification task is sensitive to reputational concerns and to the identity of potential evaluators of their behavior.