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Cognition. 2013 Jan;126(1):109-14. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2012.08.004. Epub 2012 Oct 9.

Rational snacking: young children's decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability.

Author information

  • 1Brain & Cognitive Sciences, University of Rochester, Meliora Hall, Rochester, NY 14627-0268, USA. ckidd@bcs.rochester.edu

Abstract

Children are notoriously bad at delaying gratification to achieve later, greater rewards (e.g., Piaget, 1970)-and some are worse at waiting than others. Individual differences in the ability-to-wait have been attributed to self-control, in part because of evidence that long-delayers are more successful in later life (e.g., Shoda, Mischel, & Peake, 1990). Here we provide evidence that, in addition to self-control, children's wait-times are modulated by an implicit, rational decision-making process that considers environmental reliability. We tested children (M=4;6, N=28) using a classic paradigm-the marshmallow task (Mischel, 1974)-in an environment demonstrated to be either unreliable or reliable. Children in the reliable condition waited significantly longer than those in the unreliable condition (p<0.0005), suggesting that children's wait-times reflected reasoned beliefs about whether waiting would ultimately pay off. Thus, wait-times on sustained delay-of-gratification tasks (e.g., the marshmallow task) may not only reflect differences in self-control abilities, but also beliefs about the stability of the world.

Copyright © 2012 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

PMID:
23063236
[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
PMCID:
PMC3730121
Free PMC Article

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