What Is the Marshmallow Test and Can Animals Pass It?

What Is the Marshmallow Test and Can animals Pass It? Advertisement By: Jennifer Walker-Journey  | Apr 22, 2021 Ever seen images of preschoolers staring longingly at a single marshmallow? Chances are, you caught a glimpse of the so-called marshmallow test. Conducted about 50 years ago, the experiment was designed to examine preschoolers’ ability to delay gratification […]

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What Is Marshmallow Test and Can Animals Pass It?

By: Jennifer Walker-Journey
 | 

Ever se images of preschoolers staring ingly at a single marshmallow? Chances are, you caught a glimpse of so-called marshmallow test. Conducted about 50 years ago, experimt was designed to examine preschoolers’ ability to delay gratification wh prested with a choice of having one marshmallow now or waiting a period of time and having two marshmallows later.

marshmallow test was more than just amusing footage. Researchers later suggested that passing it could be an early indicator of a child’s future success in school, occupation and ev life in geral. Those findings have come under scrutiny in rect years, but study remains one of most beloved pieces of social-scice research.

It also got researchers wondering wher a similar test of willpower could be duplicated in non-human animals — and ev sea creatures like cuttlefish. And if so, could it indicate which creatures would be better suited for survival?

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marshmallow test, also called Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, involved a series of studies by Stanford University psychologist Walter Mishel, to better understand a child’s ability to delay gratification. research, published in 1972, included hundreds of childr, most of whom were betwe ages of 4 and 5. Each child was prested with a dilemma: Have one marshmallow now or wait 15 minutes and have double number of confections. After being posed question by researchers, childr were left alone with marshmallow to contemplate ir decision.

Some childr ate marshmallow as soon as researcher left room while ors squirmed in ir seats trying to resist temptation. As you can imagine, footage of the experiment is excruciatingly cute.

Delayed gratification “is an important developmtal milestone, but also one that developmtal psychologists realized was not equally evidt in all childr,” says Michael James Beran, professor of psychology and co-director of Language Research Cter at Georgia State University, in an email. “And so, n question was about what might explain why some kids were better [at test]. Turns out, re are a lot of vironmtal factors that affect how well a child performs.”

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marshmallow test was thrust back into conversation wh a 1990 follow-up study on child particip of Stanford Marshmallow Experimt revealed that test “related to a lot of things we care about tremdously as a society,” Beran says. test showed ability to delay gratification was correlated with higher SAT scores, fewer behavioral problems and lower body mass index (BMI) among or quality of life measures.

How does delaying gratification lead to better outcomes? Beran offers se examples:

But in 2018, a new study threw premise of 1990 follow-up study under bus. original study involved less than 90 childr, all of whom were rolled in a Stanford preschool (many were childr of Stanford studts and professors.) 2018 experimt was designed to be more represtative of geral public with more than 900 childr from differt races, ethnicities and partal education level.

Researchers found only limited evidce to suggest that childr who were able to delay ir gratification in marshmallow test fared better in life. Instead, y discovered a child’s socioeconomic status (SES) to be a stronger indicator of -term success.

“For example, it may be that childr from lower SES families may perform worse, but for reasons that have to do more with those childr having learned that waiting for things rarely works out, and so ir vironmts might actually promote tng smaller rewards more immediately,” Beran says. “This will continue to be debated, as it should, but it is true that marshmallow test is diagnostic of things of great importance.”

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Beran, who also ed book “Self-Control in Animals and People,” has ed his research on cognitive control and how childr and nonhuman primates show self-control. His work compasses delayed gratification and how both childr and primates monitor how much y know or remember and n decide wh y need help or seek more information. se activities, he explains, require mng a deliberate choice.

Why study this in animals? re are two major reasons, argues Beran. “In itself, question of self-control and delay of gratification (like marshmallow test assesses) is a question about animal minds.” By gaging in cognitive control, an animal is demonstrating that it is mtally processing problem it is facing. And researchers can observe and begin to understand animal’s cognitive process.

second reason is to study or species to better understand who we are. “We want to know if human language is special for delay of gratification, or if big brains are necessary, or culture is required,” he says. “To better understand this, we need to see what or species can do.”

Can animals pass marshmallow test? Sometimes, Beran says. But humans do it at levels beyond imagination of animals. Proof of humans’ delayed gratification can be se in farmers who give fields a year to stay fallow to increase future yields in later years rar than growing a faster yielding crop of less market value. Or stockholders who resist urge to sell wh prices fall, knowing y’ll bounce back evtually.

“Chimpanzees are not doing this kind of delayed gratification (that we know of),” Beran says. “But, what it takes to wait five minutes to double your reward is presumably a basic, core process relevant to humans’ capacity for extreme delay of gratification.”

Beran created a version of the marshmallow test for chimps where y could wait for a better reward (delivered minutes later) or press a button to take a reward immediately. Wh y had to wait for a better reward (a banana rar than a carrot) y oft did. Anor test he developed tested wher chimps and or primates would leave an accumulation of food alone if pile increased er it was left alone. Chimps were able to do this, using distraction techniques (like looking at a magazine) to let more candies accumulate.

re are several ways an animal’s ability to delay gratification can indicate -term success and, as a result, survival, Beran says. For example, a monkey w food that’s only available on or side of an op field of tall grass and he impulsively runs toward it. But in doing so, he may not see a predator in field and get killed, and thus never pass on his ges. “ hesitant, cautious monkey that pauses to look before moving through field may see that predator,” and survive, he says.

Tool use in animals is anor example. To locate nuts, and hammer stones to crack those nuts, and n to hammer until a nut ops to provide calorie-dse food takes more time and effort than simply eating whatever is nearby, like fruit or a t. “To get something better required waiting er, and putting in more effort,” he says.

Some low-ranking animals wait until more dominant animals have moved away before moving to a food source y have spotted. Had y not waited patitly, dominant animal would have se food y were after and tak it. “To do this requires inhibitory control, and perhaps ev some level of strategizing that ‘I can get that later, once he has moved away and it is safer to approach,'” Beran says.

In March 2021, results of a marshmallow test with cuttlefish was published, which showed mollusk was able to tolerate delays of 50 to 130 seconds to get its desired prey (live grass shrimp). It also showed that cuttlefish able to wait est for ir favorite foods also performed best during learning tests. This marked first time a link had be shown betwe self-control and learning performance in a non-primate animal, researchers said.

Oddly ough, first tests conducted by Mischel and colleagues didn’t use marshmallows at all. In fact, kids who participated in study indicated which foods y preferred and were ticed with treats like pretzels or animal crackers instead. Some experimts did use marshmallows, including most Googleable s. “But, historically speng, it could have be called pretzel test!” Beran says.

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What Is Marshmallow Test and Can Animals Pass It?


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