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A reliable environment fosters child’s capacity for self-control

The so-called marshmallow test – one of the most fascinating experiments in child psychology – just got even more interesting.

In studies first conducted in the 1960s, researchers presented children with a marshmallow and told them if they could resist eating it for a few minutes they would get two marshmallows. It was discovered that self-control correlated with success later in life. But is the ability to resist temptation innate?

In a new study, researchers at the University of Rochester found that a child's environment plays just as much of a role as innate self-control.

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"Being able to delay gratification – in this case to wait 15 difficult minutes to earn a second marshmallow – not only reflects a child's capacity for self-control, it also reflects their belief about the practicality of waiting," Celeste Kidd, a doctoral candidate in brain and cognitive sciences at the university, and lead author of the study, said in a release.

In the study, published online in the journal Cognition, 28 children ages 3 to 5 were put in two environments, one reliable, the other unreliable. In the unreliable environment, they were given used crayons and told that if they could hold off on playing with them the researcher would come back with better art supplies. After a few minutes, the researcher returned, saying there actually aren't any other art supplies. In the reliable group, the kids were given the same supplies and promise, except the researcher kept the promise. The kids then faced the marshmallow test.

The results were striking. Kids in the unreliable environment waited a mean time of three minutes and two seconds before eating their marshmallows. The children in the reliable group resisted temptation for 12 minutes and two seconds.

With the trust issues uncovered by this new study, Kidd said there's no point in parents trying to do the marshmallow test on their kids. "Don't do the marshmallow test on your kitchen table and conclude something about your child. It especially would not work with a parent, because your child has all sorts of strong expectations about what a person who loves them very much is likely to do," she said.

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About the Author

Dave McGinn writes about fitness trends for the Life section and also reports for Globe Arts. Prior to joining the Globe, he was a freelance journalist, covering topics from trying to eat Michael Phelps' diet to why the Joker is the best villain in comics history. He's working on improving his 10k time. More

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