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News: A Toasted Marshmallow (Test)

The classic test of self-control is not as straightforward as you might believe.

If a 4-year-old child cannot resist eating a marshmallow for 10 minutes when the reward for waiting is a second marshmallow, that child has poor self-control—or at least, that is the conceit of the famous marshmallow test, a staple of impulsivity assessment. The test is widely represented in pop culture and on parenting forums, but new research suggests that its appealing simplicity may be obscuring some crucial nuances. Recent research debunks the three most common misconceptions about the test.

Myth A child who cannot wait for a second marshmallow has poor self-control and is doomed to struggle in everything from school to romance.

Fact "Take what you can, while you can" is a savvy strategy for children raised in unstable environments, and gobbling up the food at hand may reflect a child's worldview, not her lack of willpower. When children were tested by proctors who had broken earlier promises, they ate the treat sooner, found University of Rochester psychologist Celeste Kidd.

Myth Parents can measure their kids' self-control. All you need is a marshmallow!

Fact The test must be performed by a stranger so the child can build an unbiased opinion of the person's reliability. "Kids generally tend to trust their parents," Kidd says, so results may be skewed. (Quick, tell the imitators all over YouTube.)

Myth Self-control is a quality you're born with; it can't be honed or taught.

Fact The best way to practice self-control is to reduce your focus on a temptation, observes psychologist Tanya Schlam. Kids trained to turn away from the marshmallow or picture it as tasteless cotton can often suppress the urge to eat it for longer.