How Social Pressure Can Help Us Avoid Temptation: Revisiting The Marshmallow Test

mbg Editorial Assistant By Eliza Sullivan
mbg Editorial Assistant
Eliza Sullivan is an Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She has bachelor's degrees in journalism and english literature from Boston University.

Image by Six_Characters x Various / iStock

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology have revisited a classic psychology test to see how working in pairs would affect the original findings of the marshmallow test.

The original marshmallow test, if you're not familiar, was done in the 1970s at Stanford University. Children were given either a marshmallow or a pretzel stick (their preference) and told that they could eat it immediately or wait for a researcher to return to the room, at which point they would get another treat. The results found that only a third of the children waited for the second reward.

In this latest redux of the experiment, the researchers wanted to see how setting the children up in pairs would affect their ability to delay gratification. They tested a group of just over 200 5- and 6-year-olds, having some complete the classic test alone and putting others in pairs to earn their reward.

What impact did pairing up have?

For this study, they also revamped the original, as a control. Some of the individuals were given a test similar to the original test, where they alone were presented with a treat, in this case a cookie, and told they'd get a second one if they waited for the supervisor to return. Other participants were put in pairs.

The pairs were put in separate rooms and told that they would get a second treat only if both they and their partner didn't eat the cookie while the researchers were out of the room. They were not able to communicate during this time, but the study found that those children in pairs were more likely to wait for an extra reward than the children tested as individuals.

Sebastian Grueneisen, Ph.D., a researcher on the study, said, "The fact that we obtained these findings even though children could not see or communicate with each other attests to the strong motivational consequences that simply being in a cooperative context has for children from early on in development."

The study shows the children are motivated by supporting their peers and by cooperation with a partner, or what the researchers call the "interdependence condition." The results of the study show that our behaviors are influenced by our social connections, even when we're not face to face with our peers. It also proves that those influences begin at an early age, whether we're conscious of them or not.

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What does this tell us about ourselves?

The study shows that our impulses and our ability to resist temptation may be tied to our social connections, especially when there are results at stake that affect others. If one child ate their cookie before the researcher returned, the other would, too, be deprived of their reward.

"In this study, children may have been motivated to delay gratification because they felt they shouldn't let their partner down," said Rebecca Koomen, Ph.D., "and that if they did, their partner would have had the right to hold them accountable."

We can see from these results that at a young age, children were predisposed to want the benefit for the pair more than when isolated on their own. It suggests that we may better be able to achieve goals when the results have broader impact but also that accountability is an important part of success.

The feeling of accountability, and also responsibility, for our actions is apparently boosted when we make sure other people know what we're working on. And while we know that holding ourselves accountable can help us achieve goals, but the results of this study indicate that maybe letting our friends in on those goals will help us achieve them—social accountability can, apparently, be a strong motivating factor for getting results.

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