Children Have Stronger Self-Control When Working Together, New ‘Marshmallow Test’ Study Reveals


New attempt at famous experiment testing delayed gratification shows that children from a young age have a sense of social obligation toward others.


LEIPZIG, Germany — Young children could teach adults a thing or two about cooperation and patience, believe it or not. That is, if we consider the results of a new spin on the classic “marshmallow test.”

You may be familiar with the world famous marshmallow test. This is the psychological experiment in which a marshmallow is placed before a young child. The child can choose to eat it now, but if they’re willing to wait, the delayed gratification earns them a second treat.

In the original experiment, about a third of the preschool children tested were willing to wait as long as 15 minutes to earn the second treat. Researchers conducting this updated version say that children were better able to manage their impulses when they were paired with a peer than when they had to choose for themselves alone.

For the new study, 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.”

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Findings of the experiment show that Kikuyu children displayed more willingness to delay gratification than their German counterparts in both solo and paired situations.

But researchers say that both Kikuyu and German children rose to the occasion when the stakes involved another person. 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.

The study is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

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