The so-called “Marshmallow Test,” or “Attention in Delay of Gratification” (Mischel et al., 1970) has taken on iconic status in popular culture, purportedly demonstrating the struggle that children encounter with the concept of delayed gratification. In truth, there were multiple conditions in Mischel’s experiment, and it was only in one particular condition that all of the children “failed” the test. To summarize Mischel’s original experiment, children were told that they could immediately enjoy a treat; however, if they waited a specified amount of time, they could have the initial treat and a second treat as well, thus putting to the test a child’s ability to delay gratification for a greater reward. In one condition of the experiment, children were placed in a room alone with both treats. It was in this condition that children showed the most difficulty with delaying gratification, waiting a mean time of 1 minute before eating when both rewards were present. It is this condition that concerns the present study proposal in that there is a possibility for social factors to affect the time waited, and whether or not a child may indeed wait the full timeframe and attain a second reward, which was not accomplished by any of the children in the original experiment.
This study seeks to understand the role of social factors on delayed gratification; specifically, the question of whether encouragement and/or forgiveness will have an influence on children’s delay of gratification. It is proposed that this be done by replicating the aforementioned condition of Mischel’s original test, adding conditions wherein children receive a statement of encouragement or a statement forgiveness prior to the test being carried out.
Review of Literature
Research has shown that encouragement has an effect on behavior, with a study by Guyatt et al. (1984) showing that giving encouragement improved the walking test performance of patients with restricted airflow or heart failure conditions. Given the difficulty in walking for people who are experiencing restricted airflow or chronic heart conditions, and the concerted effort, maintained over a prolonged period of time to complete the walking test, it may be assumed that encouragement has an effect on the ability of a person to finish a difficult task with sustained effort over time. Further, Sewell and Shaw (1968) showed that parental encouragement had a positive effect on academic outcomes for students. The prospect of pursuing a college education could be considered one of the archetypal representations of delayed gratification in the lives of youth. The task of getting a college education itself requires sustained effort toward many preparatory tasks over the course of the years of highschool education. The reward of attending college can seem part of a far-off and slightly ambiguous future when compared with the immediate rewards of social interaction and entertainment that at times must be eschewed in favor of attending to tasks preparatory to future college acceptance. Thus, parental encouragement, it seems, has a positive effect on the ability of a youth to delay gratification by turning to homework, school attendance, and other preparatory tasks and eschewing distractions, in order to gain a future reward. From these studies we may conclude that encouragement has a positive effect on a person’s ability to show sustained effort through difficult task and the delaying of gratification until that task is complete.
Research by Hester et al. (2009) posits that praise is a key factor in encouraging positive behaviors in preschool students. The effect of praise on an increase in positive behaviors is given as a function of positive reinforcement. Further there is a plurality of research on antecedent strategies for classroom management that demonstrate the role of positive student-teacher relationships and preempting negative behavior, and emphasize its effects over punishment for bad behavior after the fact (Kern & Clemens, 2006; Emmer & Stough, 2001). By implementing systems ahead of time that promote positive behavior, make it clear what behavior is expected, and facilitate accountability for behavior, teachers are able to preempt possible negative behaviors before they happen and maintain a positive relationship with their students. The research on praise and antecedent strategies emphasizing positive teacher-student interactions to preempt bad behavior make a compelling case that encouragement and praise given before a task or an expected behavior will have a positive effect on that future behavior.
The question of the effects of forgiveness on future behavior remains open as far as the research encountered in preparing for the proposal of this study, with no. Still, it seems to intuit with facility that there is a relationship between forgiveness for past poor behavior and future good behavior. Anecdotal evidence abounds, from the reliance of many religious institutions and spiritual practices on seeking forgiveness as a gateway to changing behavior for the better, to Alcoholics Anonymous inclusion of forgiveness into their 12-Step program (Hart, 1998). A literature review by Martincekova (2015) emphatically extolls the benefits of forgiveness in the process addiction recovery. Addiction recovery implies a change in behavior away from substance use, and also a myriad of other lifestyle changes that support a non-addicted lifestyle. Because substance use grants a high degree of immediate gratification, and non-use of substances is practiced as a means of obtaining many benefits which are relatively delayed and otherwise difficult to obtain (e.g. improved interpersonal relationships, long lifespan and healthspan, a healthier overall lifestyle, potential career impacts, etc), the effects of forgiveness on long-term success in addiction recovery are pertinent to the present proposal of forgiveness as a social factor in delay of gratification. Further the presently proposed study gives opportunity to attain experimental evidence as to the efficacy of forgiveness as a factor in behavior.
To understand the role of the forgiveness factor in the study being proposed, we must understand what forgiveness is and define how it can be applied as an independent variable to this study. Madsen et al. (2009) gave an operational definition of forgiveness that will be applied, in part, in this study. The key components for consideration in the bounds of the presently proposed study are a conscious release and putting aside of one’s right to emotion and retaliation for the event in question and a renegotiation of the relationship.
Theoretical Justification and Hypotheses
Given the foregoing research on the effects of encouragement and forgiveness on behavior, specifically behavior that requires eschewing an immediate gratification in favor of a greater, delayed reward, it follows that encouragement and forgiveness will have an effect on the delay of gratification in Mischel’s (1970) “Marshmallow Test.” The proposed study will investigate whether delivering a statement, either of encouragement or forgiveness, prior to test administration will have an effect on the time a child waits before consuming the treat offered to them. It will also be reported whether more children in the experimental conditions (encouragement and forgiveness conditions) will wait the full timeframe and receive the delayed reward.
- H1: Children in the control group who receive no statement of encouragement or forgiveness prior to test administration will wait a mean of 1 minute before consuming the treat offered, as per Mischel et al. (1970).
- H2: Children who receive a statement of encouragement or forgiveness prior to test administration will wait a mean time of longer than 1 minute before consuming the treat offered
- H3: A higher percentage of children who received a statement of encouragement or forgiveness prior to test administration will wait the full time period and receive the delayed reward than the children in the control group.
Participants will be selected in concordance with Mischel et al. (1970). At least 124 participants will be selected from nearby preschools, ranging in age between 3.5 and 5 years old. At least 62 will be randomly selected from male preschoolers and another 62 from female preschoolers.
As per Mischel et al. (1970) the researchers who will be conducting the experiment will be tasked with visiting the preschool(s) that the children attend in order to play with the children and build rapport for at least two days prior to the experiment. When conducting the experiment, researchers will ask for participants’ consent to be led into a “surprise room” where the rewards will be located, along a number of toys that the researcher will indicate can be played with afterward. As in the original experiment, children will be shown the initial treat and the delayed gratification rewards and be asked to choose which of the delayed gratification rewards they prefer. The researcher will also demonstrate for the child how they can end the experiment by consuming one of the initial treats in order to summon the researcher back into the room and explain that in order to receive the delayed reward, they must sit quietly and still in their chair, and wait until the researcher returns to the room themselves 15 minutes later.
There will be three experimental conditions (independent variables):
- Condition 1 – Control Condition: Children are left in the room with the treats uncovered and visible and the researcher leaves the room to come back in 15 minutes, or after the child has consumed the treat. Note that at least 50% more children should be selected into this condition compared with the other two conditions to allow for subsequent selection into condition three as per condition three’s specifications.
- Condition 2 – Encouragement Condition: Children are left in the room with the treats uncovered and visible. Before leaving the room, delivers an encouragement statement as follows: “I’ve noticed that you are very well-behaved and very patient! I know you can wait until I come back so you can eat the (names preferred reward). The researcher leaves the room to come back in 15 minutes, or after the child has consumed the treat.
- Condition 3 – Forgiveness Condition: This condition will by necessity be administered after the other conditions. The children who fail the prior conditions by prematurely consuming their treat self-select for this condition. One week after the initial test, the researcher will return to the preschool and, after a short period of play and reacquaintance, attain the participant’s consent to be led again to the “surprise room.” Once there, the researcher will deliver a statement of forgiveness, as follows: “Last time I was here you didn’t wait for me to come back before you ate your treat. I want you to know that I am not mad at you and you are not in trouble*. Eating the treat doesn’t make you bad. You’re good! Do you understand that I am not mad and you are not in trouble?” When the child is able to affirm that they understand that they are not in trouble, the researcher continues, “And I’m going to give you another chance to get the (name preferred reward). How does that sound? Would you like another chance?” After the child answers in the affirmative, the research should affirm the child’s choice; “that’s good! I’m happy that you’re getting a second chance!” The researcher leaves the room to come back in 15 minutes, or after the child has consumed the treat.
*Note here that in Condition 3, the researcher’s affirmation that they are not mad and that the child is not in trouble satisfies the operational definition given by Madsen et al. (2009) that forgiveness entail a releasing of one’s emotion and right to retribution concerning the forgiven action or event.
Once the test is underway, if the timeframe of 15 minutes elapses and the researcher is allowed to return on their own without the child consuming the treat, the delayed reward treat is given. The amount of time each child waits before consuming the treat and summoning the researcher back to the room is recorded, as is the number of children who wait the full timeframe for the researcher to return and earn the delayed reward.
A minimum of 124 participants will be selected for the study. Participants will be randomly selected into conditions one and two with condition two having 32 participants (16 male, 16 female), and condition one having half again as many at 48 in order to have enough overhead of participants to ensure that there are enough participants for condition three. Condition three will have a sample of 32 with participants being randomly selected from those that failed either condition one or two. It is anticipated, given the results of Mischel et al. (1970), in which no child in the condition replicated in this study waited the full timeframe, that a sufficient number of participants will fail either the first or second condition, or both, to make random sampling selection into a third condition viable.
To summarize the sampling process:
- Condition 1: Participants randomly selected from participant pool until 48 participants are selected.
- Condition 2: Participants randomly selected from participant pool until 32 participants are selected.
- Condition 3: Participants that failed conditions one or two form participant pool for condition three. Participants randomly selected from those that failed condition one or two until 32 participants are selected.
A three-way factorial ANOVA will be employed to measure effect size for each independent variable. Given that the null hypothesis – that neither condition two nor three differ from the control condition – is rejected, a Least Significant Difference test will be employed to ascertain which groups differed.
A primary factor with potential to bias the data is the fact that the sample for condition three will be selected from participants in the previous two conditions. This is by necessity of the mechanics of condition three which requires a failure in order for the participant to receive forgiveness; however, to account for this, a two-way ANOVA with replication will be used to analyze the difference between the participants’ results in their first condition (condition one or two), and their second condition (condition 3). Further, these data will be analyzed for any interaction effects between having received praise for participants who started in condition two and also participated in condition three. Significant correlation between the interaction of encouragement and forgiveness together may in fact form an evidence base for potential further study on the efficacy of the use encouragement of positive action and forgiveness for negative action on reenforcing positive behavior.
Parental consent is necessary for any participants in this experiment given that the participants will be young children. A consent form will be submitted for IRB approval that outlines the details of the experiment in order to inform parents of the procedure. Signed consent forms will be collected from at least one parent of each participant.
Confidentiality will be maintained in accordance with APA guidelines. Any identifying information is abstracted by an identifier number, thus identifying information is not published with the results. Results will be coded with this identifier number for analysis, and only the results of the analysis of the data will be published, thus individual results, and any potential identifying information, will not be published or shared in any way. Parental consent forms will include a disclosure on the limitations of confidentiality and the intent to publish results of analysis of the combined data of the experiment. Thus consent for participation in the experiment will also include consent to publish the results, stripped of identifying information.
Measures will be taken to protect the participants from physical harm on the part of the researchers by ensuring that at least one other adult – a research assistant, another researcher, or a member of staff at the preschool other than any that the child has everyday interaction with – in order to prevent the presence of an adult with whom the child has an emotional bond and whom the child views as an authority figure in their day-to-day life from creating a complicating factor and skewing results – to be present with the principal researcher at all times when the researcher is present with only the child in the room.
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