New Marshmallow Test Looks at Cooperation

By now, many of us, if not most of us, have heard of the marshmallow experiment. Here is a brief summary from an earlier post I wrote about it:

You may be familiar with the famous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, which was a series of studies on delayed gratification in the late 1960s and early 1970s led by psychologist Walter Mischel, then a professor at Stanford University. In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately or two small rewards if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned. (The reward was sometimes a marshmallow, but often a cookie or a pretzel.) In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index (BMI), and other life measures. (Wikipedia)

There is even a video depicting what the experiment was like:

A later study found limited support for the idea that being able to delay gratification leads to better outcomes. Instead, it suggests that the capacity to hold out for a second marshmallow is shaped in large part by a child’s social and economic background—and, in turn, that that background, not the ability to delay gratification, is what’s behind kids’ long-term success.

But the most recent marshmallow experiment looks at the role of cooperation in people’s behavior.

Conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, researchers paired 200 youngsters ages five and six years old. To account for cultural influences, a mix of participants from Germany and from the Kikuyu tribe of Kenya were involved in the experiment.

The children first played a short balloon toss game to get comfortable with their peer in the testing environment. Then each partner went to a separate room with a cookie placed tantalizingly in front of them. Some participants acted as a control group. Like the children in the original marshmallow experiment, they were solo operators, needing only to manage their own impulses.

For the children paired with other children, a mysterious cooperation and trust came into play. Each child could receive the second treat only if both children waited. But delayed gratification was riskier in this setting, because each child had to depend on their partner as well as themselves. And during the test, they were not able to communicate or interact with their partner. The authors describe this as the “interdependence condition.”

Many more children were willing to delay gratification for the sake of a partner than for themselves alone when the interdependence condition came into play.

“The fact that we obtained these findings even though children could not see or communicate with each other attests to the strong motivational consequences that simply being in a cooperative context has for children from early on in development,” says Sebastian Grueneisen, a researcher with the institute, in a statement.

The research team believes the results show that children from a young age have a sense of social obligation toward others.

“In this study, children may have been motivated to delay gratification because they felt they shouldn’t let their partner down,” adds Rebecca Koomen, a researcher with the institute. “And that if they did, their partner would have had the right to hold them accountable.”

Even early on, children seem to understand that each of us is accountable to another. Indications are that cooperation wins over individuality when it comes to delayed gratification.

If children are aware of the value of cooperation at such a young age, at what point does such behavior change, and why?

36 thoughts on “New Marshmallow Test Looks at Cooperation

  1. This is a very interesting experiment. Being burned a time or two by non-cooperation makes people less likely to cooperate with or trust others. Also for various reasons people may begin to doubt what they are being told by the people in charge – the ones setting up the experiment. People are told not to trust doctors and scientists advocating wearing face masks. Therefore they don’t wear masks, fail to cooperate in reducing the spread of COVID-19, and we all suffer.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s that old Bob Seeger line, “I wish I didn’t know now, what I didn’t know then.”
      And it is crazy how people do not listen to doctors and scientists, thinking there is a conspiracy everywhere…

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Actually, people may in fact trust doctors and scientists but not wear a face mask in public because they are following the other rule of face mask wearing: you wear it in public WHEN social distancing is not possible.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Good point; if I am out walking on my street and there is no one around, I do not wear a mask. But as soon as someone gets close, I put it on…


  2. How interesting, Jim. I don’t think this changes. I do a lot of things and push myself harder largely out of a sense of loyalty to other work colleagues and family or out of a sense of social responsibility and/or obligation.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That was quite interesting; I had never seen it before. I like the kid who starts eating before the adult has finished talking.

    Here’s my new test for cooperation. You can choose to wear a face mask or not. Wearing a facemask prevents deaths, but not wearing a face mask gives you the freedom to do as you please. What do you choose? Pretty startling how many opt for no mask.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The original experiment is fun to watch, but its conclusions have been called into question over the years. I like your new experiment. We went out for dinner for the first time the other night, and everything seemed great – except many of the wait staff were not wearing masks! I was quite surprised…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I think this works differently with children. The very short time before they receive the reward for their delayed gratification, along with the assuredness that the promised reward will be fulfilled, makes this a simpler request. As adults, I think we have experienced times when promises made with the best intents, do not come to fruition. Also, if you ask an adult to wait a year for a specific reward, we know a lot can happen in a year that may impact the promised equation. The idea of being more willing to sacrifice for someone else than for ourselves is something that translates directly into adulthood. I saw that from almost every person I served in the military with. It was fun to revisit this experiment with new information. Great post, Jim!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree wholeheartedly, Brad. I don’t think there was much there with the original experiment, especially in terms of its predictive ability decades down the road. But the new experiment seems to offer some useful info about how we are naturally inclined to help others.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I live the redo of this experiment, with the added twist. I do think that children do this quite naturally, though perhaps not as consistent in adults, what have more experience under their belts and depending on what has happened l, they may be more or less inclined to cooperate. I do think kids are very smart about things that adults sometimes forget and you are who you are in the end

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes I agree- this one is a lot broader and much more interesting. The other one did not account for a lot of other factors that could have played a role on their behaviour.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I love this experiment and the range of findings. I’ve written about it on my blog too. The recent cooperative angle is new to me but I was thinking about the results in relation to how many are responding to the coronavirus. I see others have commented on that too. While the majority of the population, I think (anecdotal as opposed to quantitative data) are following the recommendations to keep everyone safe, there are enough who don’t have the ability to continue social distancing and so put the health of others in jeopardy. Perhaps if life is not worth living, it’s not worth living.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. the cooperative angle is an interesting one. and while some people may say that if they can’t do what they want with their life, it’s not worth living, many time that philosophy would seem to lead to the harming of others as well.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I know. I actually think it’s irresponsible, selfish and foolhardy. A lot more people are going to end up being hurt. For me, it’s just not worth the risk – to myself or others.

        Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.