Do you choose to wake up and go to work even though you don’t want to or do you call in sick because it feels like the right thing to do? Do you put a round of drinks on the credit card at 3am in the morning or do you decide not to go out tonight because you have no more money in your account?
To put it very simply there are two extremes of people and they are people who are impulsive, live for the moment and don’t think about tomorrow and there is the other type that saves their money for tomorrow and are always planning ahead. Now I know that there are crossovers of these two behaviours in everyone but can these early character traits affect the decisions children make later in life?
Stamford Marshmellow Experiment
This is a series of experiments that were conducted in the heyday of social psychology, the 1960s, which tested the self-control of several 3-5 year olds and then monitored them into adulthood.
The main study was surprisingly simple, all of the children were given a choice of whether to have a small treat immediately or if they manage to wait for about 15 minutes until the experimenter returned then they get 2 small treats. These treats were all food based like marshmallows or cookies depending on the child’s preferences.
The participants were left in a plain room with a bell and told that if they wanted to eat the treat early then they should ring the bell to tell the experimenter and then they could eat it but obviously they wouldn’t get the second treat.
The results were probably as you might expect for children of that age but very significant. Out of the 653 participants around 70% of them were unable to hold out until the end of the 15 minutes and ate the sweet early.
Some of them ate it as soon as they were given it, some ate it as soon as the experimenter left the room and most just couldn’t last the full 15 minutes and rang the bell early. 30% of them however were able to resist the temptation for the full 15 minutes and were given a second treat.
After this initial finding the experimenter, Mischel, wanted to find out if this had any bearing on how they would progress both socially and academically and so because the first students he tested were in the same school as his children he started to ask them questions about how the other participants were getting on at school. The correlation between how well the participants were able to resist and their progress at school was strong and so he couldn’t resist turning it into a longitudinal study.
A few years after this he sent out questionnaires to the teachers, parents and social workers that were associated with these children, who were now in high school, as well as asking for their SAT scores.
The results from this showed that the children who found it hard to resist the treat also found it difficult to pay attention in class, achieved poorer grades than those who were able to wait and found it more difficult to maintain friendships.
These participants have all been monitored into their late thirties and have shown that the participants who couldn’t resist the marshmellow have a higher body mass index as well as a higher likely hood of being addicted to drugs.
Now the experimenters are looking to take this study one step further and have decided to invite some of the participants back so that they can have some MRI testing performed on them. If the testing is successful and they find a correlation between the type of person they are, be they delayers or impulsive, and brain activity then they could be the first to uncover the biological processes surrounding self-control.