Over at the New Yorker website, I’ve answered a few questions from readers about the marshmallow task:
Do you think the future results of success would be different for a sample of kids born in the twenty-first century considering the decades of behavioral, economical changes in the society?
San Jose, Calif.
I think it would be hard to replicate the marshmallow task now, if only because it’s gotten much tougher to feed hundreds of preschoolers sugary snacks in the name of science. There are allergies, peculiar diets, and all sorts of food issues. So you’d have to find something else that little kids want to wait for, be it plastic figurines or poker chips.
My guess, though, is that you wouldn’t get different results with twenty-first-century children. (The scientists agree.) I think the challenge of self-control is a perdurable feature of human nature and isn’t particularly influenced by the toys of the age, be it Legos or Nintendo. Parenting fads come and go, but waiting is hard work. It always has been and always will.
However, if there were observable differences between the performance of kids in 1968 and 2009, I’d probably blame boredom. One thing that struck me while watching the videos of the four-year-olds is that the experiment was really tedious. These little kids were asked to sit in a bare room with nothing to do but stare at a marshmallow. Part of what the scientists were measuring, then, was how children reacted to the state of being bored. Could they come up with inventive ways of entertaining themselves? Were they able to lose track of time in a daydream, or start an interesting conversation with an imaginary friend?
I’ve got no good evidence for this, but I sometimes wonder if little kids today are less able to tolerate the absence of stimulation. After all, why suffer through boredom when there’s a television with three hundred channels and a computer with an endless supply of arcade games? There’s just so much possible entertainment, so why not be entertained?
The problem, though, is that self-stimulation skills are learned through practice–it’s not easy inventing a pretend playmate–and if the child is used to turning on the television when bored then maybe he’ll find it harder to delay gratification when there’s no TV. But that’s just rampant speculation.