Self-control can be improved with the help of peers, study shows

Self-control can be improved with the help of peers, study shows

(Colo.) Teachers can use social groups to help young students learn self-control—a key predictor of academic success, as well as employment opportunities and health in adulthood—according to new research.

Authors of the report–Sabine Doebel, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, and Yuko Munakata, a psychology professor at Colorado University Boulder’s Institute of Cognitive Science–put a spin on the classic marshmallow test.

In the early 1970s, Stanford researcher Walter Mischel placed a marshmallow on a plate told 92 children between 3 and 5 years old that if they could refrain from eating it for 15 minutes they would get two marshmallows instead. Some children immediately ate the first marshmallow, while others delayed their gratification and were rewarded with two marshmallows.

What Doebel and Munakata found was that children ages 3 to 5 were more likely to wait for that second marshmallow if they believed that their peers who had been surveyed prior had also waited.

The two said that their finding run counter to previous assumptions about self-control by showing that it may not be something that a person either has or doesn’t have. Rather, they said, much can be done to cultivate it in children.

“Typically, self-control has been thought of as a trait that a child has or doesn’t have,” Doebel told University of Colorado, Boulder’s campus newspaper, CU Boulder Today. “Ours is the first study to show that group behavior and group norms influence self-control in children.”

About 100 Colorado preschoolers participated in the study. With a video camera rolling, each child was ushered into a room with a marshmallow and a colored T-shirt. After putting on the shirt, researchers showed the children pictures of other kids wearing the same color and then told them they got to be in that group (what authors of the report refer to as the “in group”). They also showed them pictures of children in different colored shirts–the “out group.”

The kids participating in the study were then offered the choice to either eat the one marshmallow now or wait until the researcher went to get more and receive two. The first group of children was then told that their in-group had waited and their out-group didn’t. The other group was told their in-group didn’t wait and out-group did.

Researchers found that the group that believed their in-group waited tended to wait longer, with half the children waiting as long as 15 minutes.

In a second experiment in which the first test was repeated, children were also asked who they would rather play with, and the kids whose in-group had waited picked the kids who had waited.

Doebel said the finding suggests that the children were not just copying their group in the moment when it came to deciding to wait for a marshmallow, but that what their group did actually shaped the way they felt about self-control later.

Doebel and Munakata said their findings could be used to improve upon current interventions used to improve self-control in children who struggle with it. For instance, classroom interventions to boost self-control could be conducted in a group setting, and self-control could be promoted as a group value.

Authors noted that while practicing self-control is important in a child’s earlier developmental years for safety or academic reasons, there are also long-term consequences that will effect kids long after they have graduates.

“A child’s level of self-control predicts all kinds of important life outcomes, from what they earn to what their health looks like to how likely it is that they will end up in jail,” said Munakata, who pointed out that past research also shows peer group have a similar motivating influence on adults.

“Studies have shown that adults are more likely to lose weight, quit smoking or achieve other goals that require self-control if their friends or friends of friends do,” Munakata to CU Boulder Today. “So choose your friends accordingly.”

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