Sunday, 10 Dec 2023

A new take on the ‘marshmallow test’: When it comes to resisting temptation, a child’s cultural upbringing matters

For decades, studies have shown that children able to resist temptation — opting to wait for two marshmallows later rather than take one now — tend to do better on measures of health and success later in life.

But 50 years after the seminal “marshmallow test” suggested this, a fresh, multicultural approach to the test adds a missing piece of the story: What kids are willing to wait for depends largely on their cultural upbringing.

The CU Boulder-led study, published in the journal Psychological Science, found that children in Kyoto, Japan, waited three times longer for food than for gifts, whereas children in Boulder, Colorado, waited nearly four times longer for gifts than for food.

“We found that the ability to delay gratification, which predicts many important life outcomes, is not just about variations in genes or brain development but also about habits supported by culture,” said senior author Yuko Munakata, a research affiliate with the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at CU Boulder.

The findings provide good news to parents, showing that fostering simple, culturally appropriate habits in young children may influence their development in ways that make it easier for them to delay gratification later.

But it also calls into question decades of social science research, suggesting that some children deemed lacking in self-control may have instead just had different cultural values around waiting.

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