Don’t grow up to be the child of a Psychologist, whether amateur or professional. I have undergraduate and post graduate degrees in Psychology and have researched and taught the subject. I have had my head in Psychology for a long, long time now. I have only been a father for three years (seems longer some days!).
Anyway, having a psychologist for a dad should come with warnings attached. We are forever experimenting on our children,and shhhh … yes, our students too. Any IB Psychology students observant enough to generalise the Socio-Cultural learning outcome: Explain social learning theory, making reference to two relevant studies, will be well aware of the antecedent-stimulus-behaviour contingency and be shocked to see how often it is applied in the classroom.
My long suffering daughter Annabel is three years old now. I have cunningly replicated a series of Piaget’s tests for cognitive development which have seen her pass Piaget's sets of learning milestones with flying colours, the latest was demonstrating that she has developed the ability to internalise schemas when she was around two years old. But I am beginning to worry now … she has repeatedly failed the marshmallow test.
There is a piece of devilish psychological research that has been coined the ‘marshmallow experiment’, although it’s not an experiment per se, but a simple correlational study. In psychology, correlational research can be used as the first step before an experiment begins. It can also be used if experiments cannot be conducted. It determines if a relationship exists between two or more variables, and if so to what degree the relationship occurs.
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. In children, as well as adults, willpower can be thought of as a basic ability to delay gratification. Preschoolers with good self-control sacrifice the immediate pleasure of a chewy marshmallow in order to indulge in two marshmallows at some later point. Ex-smokers forfeit the enjoyment of a cigarette in order to experience good health and avoid an increased risk of lung cancer in the future. Shoppers resist splurging at the mall so they can save for a comfortable retirement. And so on.
But so what? Yes, a child can resist a treat for a few minutes thus demonstrating ‘will power’, but the marshmallow test must be able to provide us with some concrete examples of the benefits of developing will power early on in life. Mischel does exactly this. He revisits his participants later on and demonstrates the benefits of longitudinal research design.
Longitudinal research: Longitudinal research is a type of research method used to discover relationships between variables that are not related to various background variables. This observational research technique involves studying the same group of individuals over an extended period of time. Data is first collected at the outset of the study, and may then be gathered repeatedly throughout the length of the study. In some cases, longitudinal studies can last several decades.
The Marshmallow test
Miscel discovered when he revisited his marshmallow-test participants as adolescents. He found that teenagers who had waited longer for the marshmallows as preschoolers were more likely to do better academically and their parents were more likely to rate them as having greater ability to plan, handle stress, respond to reason, exhibit self-control in frustrating situations and concentrate without becoming distracted. More amazingly, the participants’ willpower differences had largely held up over four decades. In general, children were less successful at resisting the marshmallow all those years ago still performed more poorly on the self-control task as adults, and on average, had lower educational attainment and incomes.
Post-script: An observant reader has pointed out that Annabel may be much smarter than I think. Is it possible that by foregoing the relatively immediate reward of two marshmallows, she is in fact setting herself up for many more marshmallows over a much longer period of time? Could she know that if she passes the test tonight, her father will move onto some other psychological test, one that is far less rewarding and her slow but steady stream of marshmallows will dry up?
Post-script, post-script: No, students you absolutely cannot do this study for your IB Psychology IA (internal assessment).
Firstly, it is not an experiment. Secondly, and most importantly, it is unethical. There is n o way a preschooler can provide informed consent.
The Marshmallow 'experiments'