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Kids' Willpower Influenced By Others' Reliability

Others' reliability, not just a child's personality, affects their willpower.

Think back to your childhood Halloween: 9pm, a school night, pillowcase full of candy.

Just as you plunge into your pile of peanut butter cups, fun size this-and-thats, and spider rings (weren't they so exciting?), Mom ruins the party. "You can eat three. Then go brush your teeth and get ready for bed."

Did you eat just three? Or did you sneak an extra Baby Ruth or two when she wasn't looking?

A study published earlier this month in Cognition suggests that willpower is not the only factor in play when it comes to foregoing that extra piece.

Instead, a child's belief about their superiors' reliability can change their willingness to wait for a better payoff later.

Psychologist Celeste Kidd and colleagues of the University of Rochester created a modified paradigm of the "marshmallow task." Originally developed by psychologist Walter Mischel in 1972, the task involves an experimenter telling a preschooler that they can eat a marshmallow, cookie, or pretzel. If the child abstains and waits 15 minutes, however, the experimenter tells them they can receive two treats.

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A link between long delay time as preschoolers and SAT scores as teenagers: the longer the delay time, the higher the SAT score.
Kids lasted an average of six minutes before grabbing the treat in front of them. When followed up during their teenage years, Mischel found that the kids who waited longer were doing better socially and academically.

The new experiment consisted of 28 preschoolers, aged 3 to 5. Before participating in the marshmallow task, however, they were instructed to do an art project.

All of the experimenters told the children they'd give them fancy art supplies and stickers; only half of them reliably delivered on their promise.

Children who were disappointed by the unreliable experimenter waited only three minutes before eating their marshmallow. Only one of the 14 kids in this group waited faithfully for a second marshmallow.

Those who were given the art supplies promised, however, waited an average of 12 minutes. Nine of the 14 kids of this group forewent their first marshmallow for a second.

Kidd's study suggests that willpower is not the only factor involved in a child's patience and, later down the road, academic or social success. Rather, their beliefs about others' behavior influence their decisions about waiting for a better reward.

So perhaps last year's victims of Jimmy Kimmel's Halloween candy challenge will know to come home with an empty bag this year—after all, how do these kids know they can trust their parents not to steal all their candy again?

Kidd C, Palmeri H, & Aslin RN (2012). Rational snacking: Young children's decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability. Cognition PMID: 23063236

Shoda, Y., Mischel, W., & Peake, P. (1990). Predicting adolescent cognitive and self-regulatory competencies from preschool delay of gratification: Identifying diagnostic conditions. Developmental Psychology, 26 (6), 978-986 DOI: 10.1037/0012-1649.26.6.978

Jordan Gaines Lewis is a science writer and Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at Penn State College of Medicine.
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