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  • Writer's pictureAllison Frost

Measuring patience among young children in rural Pakistan: Lessons learned from the marshmallow test

A child’s patience, or their ability to control their impulses, is a key developmental skill that can have long-lasting implications for their success.

As social science researchers, we often use behavioral tasks to measure how well kids can show patience. The most famous of these tasks is the marshmallow test. The premise is simple: children are given a single marshmallow and told that if they wait for 10 minutes, they can have a second marshmallow. However, if they eat the marshmallow in front of them, they don’t get the second treat. Whether or not the child waits the full 10 minutes for the extra marshmallow is meant to index how well they can delay gratification.

In the US and other high-income countries, the marshmallow test has been used extensively to argue that a child’s ability to delay gratification predicts their future success. However, some recent research suggests that the marshmallow test may be measuring more than just self-control. In the US, there is now recognition that results of the marshmallow test might be driven by socioeconomic factors rather than a child’s ability to control him/herself. But what about in non-western contexts?

In the Bachpan project, we pilot tested the marshmallow test with 6-year-old children in rural Pakistan. We gave kids a tempting treat and told them they could wait 10 minutes and receive another treat or eat the treat in front of them. We were surprised to find that almost all the pilot participants waited the full 10 minutes for a second treat.

Did we just test an exceptionally patient group of children? Not likely…when we asked mothers how long they thought their child might be able to wait, we got a variety of responses, suggesting that there was a lot of variability in how patient these children were in daily life. It is more likely that the marshmallow test was tapping into something other than children’s patience.

We presented the marshmallow task as a choice, but children may have viewed waiting as what they were supposed to do. So, we may have been measuring their obedience to authority figures (such as the assessor) rather than their patience. There are strong cultural expectations around obedience in non-Western contexts, which has led some researchers to suggest we should think carefully before using the marshmallow test in these settings.

In addition, the marshmallow task was developed in the US, where instant gratification is common. Children who expect to receive rewards immediately may have trouble delaying gratification, leading them to reach for the single marshmallow rather than waiting. In low-resource contexts, where instant gratification is not the norm, children may have no problem

waiting for a reward!

Finally, we gave the marshmallow test in children’s homes (instead of in the lab) and tested children who were slightly older than previous samples. All of these factors may have limited how useful the marshmallow task is in measuring child patience in this context.

So how do we measure this important skill among Pakistani 6-year-olds? The best approach moving forward may be to use a computer-based paradigm that limits adult involvement and measures impulsive behavior without relying on a tangible reward. No matter what measure we use, we will need to consider the cultural relevance of our paradigm, as well as the possibility that these kids may surprise us!

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