How we view the world, including its predictability, depends on biological factors and environment. Our motivation also depends on past experiences to explain and hypothesize about the future. The “Stanford Marshmallow Experiment” of the 1960’s was a ground-breaking psychological study. Children in the study were given the choice between having one food reward, such as a marshmallow, immediately and having two rewards for waiting until the tester returned to the room. Older children were more likely to delay gratification, and about one-third of the participants were able to wait for the tester’s return. Follow-up studies show that children who delayed gratification scored higher on standardized tests and had more active prefrontal cortexes on brain imaging studies when the children reached middle-age.
In 2013, psychologists replicated the marshmallow task but included one of two experimental conditions – a reliable or unreliable environment. In the first stage of the experiment, researchers established the environment to be reliable or unreliable by telling the child they could use crayons or a sticker immediately available to them, or wait for the researcher to return with something more exciting. In the reliable condition, the children waited and the researcher returned with a more exciting option. In the unreliable condition, the children waited but the researcher reported that the more exciting option couldn’t be found, so the child could use the first choice. The marshmallow task was then conducted. Children were told they could either eat one marshmallow immediately or wait 15 minutes for the researcher to get another so the child could have both. The children in the reliable condition waited an average of 12 minutes before eating the marshmallow. Those in the unreliable condition waited 3 minutes. Figure 1 shows the proportion of children, based on condition, who waited 15 minutes to eat the marshmallow.
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