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Your cultural upbringing may be a crucial factor in beating the Stanford marshmallow test.

Science

The premise of the now-classic “marshmallow test” is quite simple. Sit a 3- to 5-year-old kid down at a table and place in front of said kid a marshmallow on a plate. A researcher tells the young subject they have two choices: Eat the marshmallow now, or wait 10 minutes and get two marshmallows. The test—designed to study impulse control—was first performed at Stanford University in the 1960s, and the researchers spent decades tracking both the kids who had showed self-control, and the ones who had failed at the test by being unable to defer their gratification. The results were starkly contrasted and very surprising. The first group went on to fare better not just in terms of impulse control, but in many aspects of life (test scores, health, good jobs).

“The Cameroonian kids were able to wait much, much better.”

For those of us who would like to think we have the ability to grow and reform and improve over time, these results were a bummer. Certain defining traits are locked in early, and we can’t outrun our true natures. But what the study didn’t account for is how many of those traits are shaped by differing cultural backgrounds. A recent redux of the marshmallow test was carried out on a group of 4-year-olds from A) the German middle-class and B) the Nso ethnic group of Northwestern Cameroon. Can you guess how it went?

“The Cameroonian kids were able to wait much, much better,” says study lead Dr. Bettina Lamm, a psychologist at Universitaet Osnabrück in Germany.

In her team’s report, titled “Waiting for the Second Treat” and published recently in the journal Child Development—nearly 70 percent of the Cameroonian 4-year-olds were able to hold out. Their German counterparts, on the other hand, had roughly a 30 percent success rate. Though careful not to read too deeply into results—child behavior is intricate and complex—Lamm believes some valuable observations can be gleaned from her study.

“German parents consider their children to be active agents, initiators, in charge of their own talents and competencies. For their kids to be successful, they feel it’s important to allow their personalities to shine. This gives the children control over every situation,” says Lamm. “In Cameroon, the most important thing is for children to be obedient.”

“All the parents are raising their kids in the way that will make them be most successful in their respective societies.”

In observing the two groups —about 200 children were studied in total—Lamm said the German kids waited out their 10 minutes differently than the children from Cameroon. They whined and fidgeted, talked to themselves, drummed their hands on the table—anything to avoid taking the treat. By contrast, most of the Cameroonian children sat quietly, without moving. Some of them even fell asleep.

Lamm notes that neither group should be judged as better or worse, and neither should the parenting styles that may have brought them there. The Nso children have been taught that they don’t always get what they want immediately; waiting and obedience is de rigueur. The German subjects, who responded similarly to American kids who’ve taken this test, have a greater sense of autonomy and the ability to question adults. “All the parents are raising their kids in the way that will make them be most successful in their respective societies,” Lamm says.

One final item of note: The German marshmallow test did not use actual marshmallows as the reward. In the original Stanford test, subjects were given the choice between marshmallows, Oreo cookies, or pretzel sticks (the secondary options aren’t mentioned as much). In Germany, the children were offered lollipops or chocolate bars, while the Nso kids got a regional donut-like treat called the “puff-puff”. Lamm says the children need familiar treats for the test to work.

“For a Cameroonian child, the chocolate or lollipop would have seemed so extraordinary to regular life, who knows how they would react?” she says, adding a bit about her own preferences. “The puff puff was not familiar to me, I’ll admit. But now I have gotten to eat it quite a bit—I like this puff puff.”

Jesse Hirsch

Jesse Hirsch is a contributing editor for GOOD magazine in Los Angeles. Previously he was editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan magazines and senior editor at Modern Farmer. His stories have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Bon Appetit, The Guardian and more.