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Features : Editorial Last Updated: Dec 26, 2012 - 8:33:01 AM

Can a test in preschool predict life success?
By Steve Ferber
Dec 26, 2012 - 8:32:10 AM

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The classic marshmallow test may soon be mush. For 40 years it’s been the litmus test for predicting life success, but a new experiment threatens to upend its reign. Let’s review.
The marshmallow experiment was created by Stanford professor Walter Mischel in the 1960s and though it may appear simplistic, it has changed the way that educators and psychologists view life success. Here’s how it works: a preschooler is given a single marshmallow and told that they are free to eat it right away OR if they can wait for a little while and then will be given a second marshmallow. What’s a 3-to-5 year old to do?  
Evaluating the literature, Drake Bennett of Business Week recently wrote: “Tracking the kids over time, Mischel found that the ability to hold out in this seemingly trivial exercise had real and profound consequences. As they matured and became adults, the kids who had shown the ability to wait got better grades, were healthier, enjoyed greater professional success, and proved better at staying in relationships – even decades after they took the test. They were, in short, better at life . . . . The lesson is that it’s not just intelligence that matters, but self-control and patience and being able to tame one’s impulses – from the desire to eat the marshmallow to the desire to blow off an exam or have an affair.”
The new research, out of the University of Rochester, threatens to roast Mischel’s work. In a creative series of experiments they found that the ability to delay gratification wasn’t simply an innate ability. Instead, it’s greatly influenced by the stability of one’s environment. Explained lead researcher Celeste Kidd, as quoted in a University of Rochester press release this fall:
"Our results definitely temper the popular perception that marshmallow-like tasks are very powerful diagnostics for self-control capacity.” Celeste Kidd is a doctoral candidate in brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester and co-authored the study with Richard Aslin and Holly Palmeri.  
Added co-author Aslin: "We know that to some extent, temperament is clearly inherited, because infants differ in their behaviors from birth. But this experiment provides robust evidence that young children's action are also based on rational decisions about their environment."
In challenging the age-old marshmallow test, Kidd and her colleagues prepped the preschoolers by cleverly creating two unique environments, one reliable, one unreliable. Here’s how they did it: the preschoolers were given a drawing task and a set of old, used crayons, and worn-out stickers. One group (the unreliable group) was told that, in a moment, an adult would return with a batch of new crayons. But when the adult returned, they apologized and said they had no fresh crayons for them. A bit later, these same students were told that an adult would soon return with a new batch of stickers. Same result – when the adult returned, they apologized for having none.  By contrast, in the reliable group, the adult returned with fresh crayons and shiny new stickers, as they had promised.
What happened?
The researchers were shocked at the results, which were so strong that they abandoned a larger field test.  The results were that definitive. The preschoolers in the unreliable group waited an average of 3 minutes before eating the single marshmallow; the preschoolers in the reliable group waited an average of 12 minutes (nine out of the 14 kids in the reliable condition held out the full 15 minutes for a second marshmallow, while only one of the 14 in the unreliable condition did).
Bottom line: the researchers maintain that preschoolers, young as they are, are fully capable of making rational decisions.  So a person’s innate ability to delay gratification (linked, per 40 years of research, to life success) may be uprooted by an unstable environment. One can imagine a child who grows up in an unsettled household. While they may possess an innate ability to delay gratification, they might also grab that first marshmallow . . . while they can.
* Lead researcher Kidd cautions parents: “Don't do the marshmallow test on your kitchen table and conclude something about your child. It especially would not work with a parent, because your child has all sorts of strong expectations about what a person who loves them very much is likely to do." Kidd’s remarks were contained in the University of Rochester press release.
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