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'Marshmallow Test' Reboot Reveals Scary Bias in Psychological Research

Most parents would say their child’s ability to wait patiently for a reward is a sign of maturity. However, for three generations now, a preschooler’s ability to delay gratification has been seen by the scientific community as a predictor of future success. The belief is based on an experiment known as the "marshmallow test," first conducted by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel in the 1960s. The America Psychological Association described the test:

Mischel and his colleagues presented a preschooler with a plate of treats such as marshmallows. The child was then told that the researcher had to leave the room for a few minutes, but not before giving the child a simple choice: If the child waited until the researcher returned, she could have two marshmallows. If the child simply couldn’t wait, she could ring a bell and the researcher would come back immediately, but she would only be allowed one marshmallow.

Recently undertaken again by researchers from NYU and UC Irvine, the re-test replicated many of the results from the original. Researchers’ interpretation of the results, however, has changed significantly. Instead of seeing delayed gratification as a predictor of future success, scientists are now attributing the all-important trait to socioeconomic background. In turn, we’re now being told that a child’s race and economic class, not his or her intellectual ability, will predict future success. The real question is: Is this science or politics being fed to the masses?

According to The Atlantic:

This new paper found that among kids whose mothers had a college degree, those who waited for a second marshmallow did no better in the long run—in terms of standardized test scores and mothers’ reports of their children’s behavior—than those who dug right in. Similarly, among kids whose mothers did not have college degrees, those who waited did no better than those who gave in to temptation, once other factors like household income and the child’s home environment at age 3 (evaluated according to a standard research measure that notes, for instance, the number of books that researchers observed in the home and how responsive mothers were to their children in the researchers’ presence) were taken into account. For those kids, self-control alone couldn’t overcome economic and social disadvantages.

Researchers reasoned that poorer children preferred instant gratification because they didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, or that their parents had the tendency to treat them to small things on payday versus saving and waiting for bigger rewards.

This economic theory directly impacts education, or so it would seem. A report on the marshmallow re-test published in the L.A. Times noted that more than half of preschool-aged children attend "schools that [stress] social skills and self-control as cornerstones of educational readiness.” Poor kids who don’t attend preschool are simply unable to learn how to wait patiently for a reward. (Am I the only one sensing another push for federally-funded preschool coming down the line?)