What we learn when Cameroonian toddlers ace the marshmallow test of self-control

Can you resist?
Can you resist?
Image: AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
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For more than four decades the marshmallow test has been used to measure an individuals self-control and ability to delay gratification—a personality trait that is likely to yield positive results from the gym to the office.

For the first time, a group of researchers have carried out the study beyond the Western world. The study, published last month, involved 201 four-year-olds, 76 Cameroonians and 125 German, nearly equal numbers of boys and girls. The German children were chosen from middle-class families while the Cameroonian children were all of the Nso ethnic group and lived in rural settings in northwest of the central African country.

The test works by leaving a child in a room with a marshmallow or similar sweet for 10 minutes. Psychologist Bettina Lamm and her team  bargain with the toddlers, if they wait 10 minutes, they’ll get two, if they are unable to resist, then they’ll only get one.

In the culturally specific test, researchers tempted Cameroonian children with a puff-puff, a kind of small doughnut, while the German children could choose between a lollipop and a chocolate bar. Nearly 70% of the Cameroonian children were able to resist the treat. One of them walked out the room to end the wait—without actually going for the puff-puff. In comparison, 49.6% of German children ate or tasted the sweet before the researcher returned, while 22.4% of them walked out.

In the original 1960s study by Walter Mischel, children came up with all sorts of creative ways to distract themselves from the puffy treat in front of them, singing or talking to themselves, or playing games with their hands and feet. In the cross-cultural study, the German toddlers tended to repeat this behavior. Most of the Nso children showed little emotion or fidgeting, while eight of them just fell asleep during the wait.

This behavior pointed to the children’s upbringing in a collectivist culture, and to the parenting style of their mothers. Researchers believe that delayed gratification was a by-product of growing up an environment that was interdependent and hierarchical.

The Nso children were able to regulate their negative feelings or emotional outbursts without the intervention of caregivers. This was possibly due to social norms at home that prioritized social harmony and modesty over personal displays of preference or emotion. Cameroonian children were also found to be more aware of their responsibilities or obligations within the family.

Much of this had to do with parenting. The study extended to early childhood development to monitor how the children were raised differently. Monitoring mothers and their nine-month-old infants, researchers found that Cameroonian mothers tended to be more authoritarian, socializing their children to fit into the existing family structure while German mothers showed a more observant style and encouraged the pursuit of personal interests.

The childhood displays of self-control have found to be significant right into adulthood. In the original study, researchers tracked the participants (pdf) of the original study through later life and found that as teenagers, the toddlers who waited longer scored higher in their SATs, had better planning skills and responded well to stress compared to those with weaker willpower. As adults in their 40s they continued to display greater self-control.

The test isn’t only about resisting a sugar-fix, but also looks at trust and the environments kids find themselves in, said Mischel. It’s still too soon for a follow-up study to follow African children into adulthood. And it may be harder to maintain the comparison, given how far the path of a middle-class German child will likely diverge from their rural Cameroonian counterpart.