Cultural Conundrums / Children’s Self-control and Culture: Practice Yields Divergent Results

The 19th-century playwright Oscar Wilde is known for his many witty epigrams, and one in particular comes to mind when contemplating the famous Stanford Marshmallow Test developed in 1972 by Walter Mischel and his co-researchers: “I can resist anything except temptation.”

All of us grapple with various enticements in life and the frequent need to defer the indulgence of such cravings, and both Wilde’s quip and the marshmallow test have attracted fascination for their spotlight on this very human trait.

The well-known test of children’s ability to delay gratification is beautiful in its simplicity of design. A child around 4½ years of age sits with a marshmallow in front of them and is told that they can eat the marshmallow, but, if they wait for 15 minutes without eating it, they will receive a second one.

The experiment was tweaked to substitute cookies or pretzels instead of marshmallows, as well as to include modifications such as the experimenters suggesting to the children things they could think about while they were waiting, or shutting the treat in a tin after showing it so that the food itself was not visible to the children as they tried to restrain their longing for the required period.

Subsequent tracking of those who managed to stick it out suggested this ability to resist their impulse was a good predictor of future achievement in terms of things like higher SAT scores and a lower body mass index. However, the conclusions have been challenged over the years, most significantly with the finding that the child’s family background plays an essential role in the outcome. In 2018, developmental psychologist Tyler Watts and two colleagues conducted a modified marshmallow test in which the children waited for seven minutes and analyzed the findings based on whether the children’s mothers had a college degree or not, as a measure of socioeconomic status.

The team found that the children of non-degreed mothers waited an average of 3.99 minutes, and 45% completed the seven-minute wait successfully. In contrast, children whose mothers had degrees had an average of 5.38 minutes, and 68% stuck it out.

Moreover, 23% of the children of lower socioeconomic backgrounds waited less than 20 seconds, while only 10% of their counterparts did so. These findings have been interpreted as suggesting that different backgrounds may develop different life skills: being raised in greater economic insecurity may lead a child to be careful not to let an opportunity slip away rather than wait for a greater pay-off down the line, the wisdom expressed in “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

What impact might cultural background have? Another developmental psychologist, Kaichi Yanaoka, and six co-researchers set out to test whether the kinds of waiting events children encountered culturally might influence how long they waited. They noted that Japanese children are trained to wait to begin eating until everyone is served, but conversely had fewer opportunities to practice waiting for gifts compared to their American counterparts, who often need to wait to open presents at Christmas and birthday parties.

Accordingly, they conducted two tests. In one, Japanese and American children sat with a marshmallow in front of them and were told if they waited 15 minutes they’d get another. In the other, the treat was a gift-wrapped toy. The researchers confirmed that all the Japanese children participating in the experiment had eaten a marshmallow before.

Before the experiment, the children completed a reward-liking questionnaire, in which those who would wait for a marshmallow were shown a marshmallow and asked how much they liked eating a marshmallow, on a scale of one (a little) to five (a lot), with differently sized stars used to portray the range. Those participating in the gift-wrapped toy group made the same assessment about opening a gift-wrapped toy when shown one.

The American children liked both eating marshmallows and opening gift-wrapped toys better than their Japanese counterparts, but preferred opening gift-wrapped toys, with an average of 5 for the gift-wrapped toy and 4.44 for the marshmallow.

The Japanese children did not show much preference between the two rewards, but had a slight preference for eating a marshmallow, with an average of 4.18 compared to 3.93 for opening a gift-wrapped toy.

The results did indeed show cultural differences based on what was being anticipated. When waiting for a marshmallow, all the Japanese children waited the full 15 minutes, but when waiting for the toy, the median wait time was significantly shorter, 4.62 minutes. For the American children, the reverse was true. Their median wait time for the gift was 14.62 minutes, but only 3.66 minutes for the marshmallow.

That Japanese children could wait three times longer for a marshmallow than they could for a toy, and conversely American children could wait four times longer for a toy than a marshmallow certainly seems to indicate cultural divergences in the test of delayed gratification based on the object and whether the children had actual practice in waiting for something like it or not.

Reports completed by the parents in both cultural groups confirmed differences in practice. Japanese parents reported children’s stronger habits of waiting to eat food at home and elsewhere, as well as greater encouragement for them to do so by the parents.

The study can be viewed as a caution related to the importance of paying attention to specific methodology in testing. If Japanese and American children only took the marshmallow test in its classic form, the results would likely show the Japanese kids were paragons of self-control compared to their American counterparts, when really the findings only indicate that they’re aces in the food-waiting category.

More interestingly, it injects a cultural angle to American philosopher Will Durant’s well-known summary of part of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” Perhaps 40 years in Japan have influenced me, because I’m sure I’d hold out a shorter time for the toy, too.

Kate Elwood

Elwood is a professor of English at Waseda University’s School of Commerce.