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?