Marshmallow experiment used to test self-control in kids

Helping your child learn self-control
Posted at 3:34 PM, Feb 27, 2019
and last updated 2019-03-01 18:49:52-05

BOULDER, Co. — Research has shown that a child’s cognitive development, or his ability to learn, is likely influenced by his or her parents. But there are other factors at play, too. New research shows that children’s actions may also be influenced by what their peers do.

Big sister Bella and brother Logan are great playmates.

Their mother Heather Lofquist told Ivanhoe, “She’s just very sensitive and likes to make friends, where Logan is a little bit more rambunctious.”

Like all kids, these two take their cues from mom and dad, but new research shows peer group behavior may have even more influence on cognitive development, specifically self-control.

“That develops dramatically between three and five years of age,” explained Sabine Doebel, PhD, a cognitive development scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

In a new study, Sabine Doebel used a marshmallow experiment to test self-control. She assigned kids to different groups and watched to see if their actions were influenced by their beliefs about what their group and another group did. Doebel gave kids one marshmallow to eat right away, but said if they waited, they could have two. She then told them that kids in their group waited and kids in the other group did not, or she told them the opposite.

“Kids who believed that their group waited for two marshmallows are themselves able to wait longer for that second marshmallow,” detailed Doebel.

Bella was in the study. She waited … patiently.

“The kids tended to say they waited because their group waited,” said Doebel.

The study suggests being part of a group affects the ability to delay, or self-control, even from a very young age.

“She was given a task and given a rule and she just followed it to a T and that’s kind of just how she is,” said Lofquist.

But Logan?

“I’m not sure Logan would have sat for 15 minutes and stared at a marshmallow,” said Lofquist.

Based on this research, Doebel said parents can talk about a child’s role model or hero to improve their self-control. For example, they can point out that the role model likes to be patient when dealing with his little sister.

Produced by Child Trends News Service in partnership with Ivanhoe Broadcast News and funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.