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Rational Snacking: Young Children’s Decision-Making on the Marshmallow Task Is Moderated by Beliefs About Environmental Reliability

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When children draw on walls, reject daily baths, or leave the house wearing no pants and a tutu, caretakers may reasonably doubt their capacity for rational decision-making. However, recent evidence suggests that even very young children possess sophisticated decision-making capabilities for reasoning about physical causality (e.g., Gopnik et al., 2004; Gweon & Schulz, 2011), social behavior (e.g., Gergely, Bekkering, & Király, 2002), future events (e.g., Denison & Xu, 2010; Kidd, Piantadosi, & Aslin, 2012; Téglás et al., 2011), concepts and categories (e.g.,Piantadosi, Tenenbaum, & Goodman, 2012; Xu, Dewar, & Perfors, 2009), and word meanings (e.g., Xu & Tenenbaum, 2007). Here we demonstrate that young children also use their rational decision-making abilities in a domain of behavioral inhibition: a sustained delay-of-gratification task. Decision-making is said to be rational if it maximizes benefit or utility (Anderson, 1991; Anderson & Milson, 1989; Marr, 1982), yet young children’s decisions during delay-of-gratification tasks often appear to do just the opposite (e.g., Mischel & Ebbesen, 1970)

When asked to resist the temptation of an immediately available low-value reward to obtain one of high-value after a temporal delay, 75% of children failed to do so, succumbing to their desire after an average of 5.72 min. The cause of these apparent failures of rationality, however, is not fully understood. While children’s failures to wait are likely the result of a combination of many genetic and environmental variables, two potentially important factors are self-control capacity and established beliefs.

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We must emphasize the need for caution in the interpretation of the total findings linking preschool delay to adolescent outcomes. This caution applies especially in the interpretation of the associations between preschool delay in the exposed-rewards-spontaneous-ideation condition and SAT scores. On the one hand, our faith in the validity of the links between preschool delay behavior and later relevant competencies is strengthened because the objective test results were consistent with the parental rating data. On the other hand, even the highest correlations account for only about 25% of the variance. In addition, given the smallness of the sample, the obtained coefficients could very well exaggerate the magnitude of the true association. For example, in the diagnostic condition, the 95% confidence interval for the correlation of preschool delay time with SAT verbal score ranges from .10 to .66, and with SAT quantitative score, the confidence interval ranges from .29 to .76. The value and importance given to SAT scores in our culture make caution essential before generalizing from the present study; at the very least, further replications with other populations, cohorts, and testing conditions seem necessary next steps

Comparing the associations found between the delay behavior of the preschool child and the subsequent outcome measures. One contributing source may be stability in the subjects' family-mediated environments (e.g., Greenberger, Steinberg, & Vaux, 1982; Holahan & Moos, 1986; Lefcourt, Martin, & Saleh, 1984). For example, stability in parental child-rearing practices and in the psychosocial environment in the family and the community may be a common factor underlying both preschool children's delay of gratification behavior and their cognitive and self-regulatory competence in adolescence. These commonalities may contribute to the observed long-term correlations.

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"I was astounded that the effect was so large,"" says Aslin. ""I thought that we might get a difference of maybe a minute or so… You don't see effects like this very often."" In prior research, children's wait time averaged between 6.08 and 5.71 minutes, the authors report. By comparison, manipulating the environment doubled wait times in the reliable condition and halved the time in the unreliable scenario. Previous studies that explored the effect of teaching children waiting strategies showed smaller effects, the authors report. Hiding the treat from view boosted wait times by 3.75 minutes, while encouraging children to think about the larger reward added 2.53 minutes. The findings, says Kidd, are reassuring. She recalls reading about the predictive power of these earlier experiments years ago and finding it ""depressing."" At the time she was volunteering at a homeless shelter for families in Santa Ana, California. ""There were lots of kids staying there with their families. Everyone shared one big area, so keeping personal possessions safe was difficult,"" she says. ""When one child got a toy or treat, there was a real risk of a bigger, faster kid taking it away. I read about these studies and I thought, 'All of these kids would eat the marshmallow right away.' "

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To sum up, the findings in group differences for this study were minimal. One notable finding is that math achievement differed significantly by group, with the full delay highest, rule-breakers or distressed next, and bell-ringers were lowest. These differences in math bore out longitudinally, with ‘math thinking’ in first grade and applied math at the age of 15 also showing group differences between the two non-delay groups. Neither delay latency nor outcome group of the Marshmallow Test was predictive of the social-emotional or behavioral outcomes that I examined in first or ninth grade. This could be due to the positively skewed distribution of these outcome variables, in which few children were rated ‘high’ for any troubles

Interpreting measurement of self-regulation in the absence of rule compliance is difficult, because the causes of noncompliance were varied and not readily discernable. This followed in the second study by finding minimal differences between one or the other of the non-delay groups and the delay group, which this analysis indicates are associated with working memory and attention, and impulsivity and externalizing behavior, taken together to mean that not only does compliance have influence on the exercising of self-regulation, but self-regulation can influence the ability to comply. Furthermore, this analysis supported a long established and growing literature, which finds that controlling parenting beliefs and harsh discipline are negatively correlated with both compliance and self-regulation. Together, these findings have implications for both behavior problems and discipline policies in schools, beginning with preschool.

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Anderson J. Cognitive architectures in a rational analysis. In: VanLehn K, editor. Architectures for Intelligence. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; Hillsdale, NJ: 1991. pp. 1–24.

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Council on School Health. (2013). Out-of-School Suspension and Expulsion. Pediatrics, 131(3), e1000–e1007. http://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2012-3932

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Denison S, Xu F. Twelve- to 14-month-old infants can predict single-event probability with large set sizes. Developmental Science. 2010;13:798–803.

Mischel, W. (196 la). Preference for delayed reinforcement and social responsibility. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 62, 1-7.

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