You might have heard of the Stanford prison experiment. But have you heard of the Stanford marshmallow experiment?
The marshmallow experiment was a fascinating study conducted by researchers in the late 1960s and early ’70s to test kids’ ability to delay gratification.
3- to 5-year-old kids were placed in a room with a marshmallow or other treat in front of them and told that, yes, they could eat it if they wanted. But if they could just wait 15 minutes or so, they could have a second marshmallow or a larger treat.
In the original study, a little less than half of the kids were able to hold out for the bigger reward. Follow-up studies done on these children found that the ability to delay gratification was correlated with better test scores, jobs, and overall success later in life.
Now, 50-some years later, researchers have re-created the famous marshmallow experiment — with one interesting twist.
The new study out of University of Osnabrück in Germany presented a similar test to two separate groups of 4-year-old kids: one group of Westernized children, from Germany, and another group from Cameroon (their people are known as the Nso).
The researchers knew that parenting styles in the two places were vastly different and wanted to see what effect that had on self-regulation and emotions.
What they found surprised them, even though the researchers were already well versed in the cultural differences.
The Nso children were far more able to delay their gratification. Not only that, it seemed to be easy for them.
The German kids performed about as well as the ones in the original 1960s study — in other words, under half of them “passed.” On the other hand, about 70% of the Nso children held out for the second treat.
For many of them, it seemed to be no sweat.
Lead researcher Bettina Lamm writes in an email: “In German kids you can virtually see how they fought the temptation, when they were moving around, talking or singing to themselves, playing with parts of their body or even with the sweet. Nso kids just sat there and wait, they do not show much motor activity and hardly show any emotions, and some of them even fell asleep.”
Waiting for an extra marshmallow turned out to be a piece of cake.
Cameroonian parenting is known to be more strict than in the Western world. That may help explain the difference, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
“Nso children are required very early to control their emotions, especially negative emotions,” Lamm told NPR. “Moms tell their children that they don’t expect them to cry and that they really want them to learn to control their emotions.”
The Nso kids aren’t generally encouraged to make their needs and desires known, she said. They’re raised to trust that mom will give them everything they need when they need it.
(This could also be a factor in the study’s results: How much do the kids trust that the researcher will actually bring them the second marshmallow?)
Does that mean parents everywhere should start cracking down and getting tough? Not so fast.
“Raising Western children in the Nso manner would not work,” Lamm stresses. “Maybe, it would support the development of self-regulation (which we do not know for sure, because of the different environment), but we can be sure that children raised that way in the Western context would lack several competencies that are very important in the Western world (e.g. autonomy and uniqueness).”
If there’s a takeaway here for Western parents, it’s this: Teaching our kids a little self-control is a great thing, but it’s not the only skill that matters in our world.
In other words, it’s not the end of the world if your kid just wants to eat the damn marshmallow.