The Self-Restraint Test 2



Six months ago I put the boys through the Stanford marshmallow experiment, using a biscuit. (Perhaps my recurring readers will remember it, from a post I made in June.)

It seemed an appropriate time for a sequel. Not just because watching such things is fun, but because I was interested to know if they’d made any observable developments in their self-regulation skills.

Last time, the duration had been short and the rule simple: have one biscuit now, or wait five minutes and have two. While both boys made it—even if only barely—rules were pushed to their precarious edge with no spoken rule about touching the biscuit.

This time the experiment ran for ten minutes, and they weren’t allowed to touch their biscuit, either. Unfortunately, the ‘no touching’ rule extended only to the biscuit itself, and not to the plate it was sitting on. As such, both boys distractedly played with their plate, pushing its edge down to the surface of the table…where, naturally, the biscuit slid off it and came to rest on the tablecloth.

They seemed to not think anything of immediately picking it up to put it back on their plates. When I pointed out they’d just touched their biscuits and thus could not have another one, Timmy was particularly distressed. He pleaded for me to let him start again.

Now I was torn. Do I enforce the letter of the law, or the spirit of it? The instruction was to not touch the biscuit, but the objective was to not succumb to the temptation of eating it early. And replacing it on their plate hadn’t been a move toward eating it.

Relenting, I restarted the game, and reset the timer to ten minutes.

And it happened again. Tilting plates. Sliding biscuits. Replacing. Distress. Everything.

They both only got one biscuit that day, and the promise they’d have the chance to play for two biscuits tomorrow.

The next day, I left the plates behind, instead placing their biscuit directly on the tablecloth in front of them.

Their coping techniques were much the same as what I’d observed in June. Again, four-year-old Timmy tended to not even look at his biscuit—instead, he cradled the kitchen timer to see how long he had left to wait. And now-three-year-old Daniel eyeballed the jar housing all the rest of the biscuits, for a while, before inspecting his own biscuit from every possible angle. When he’d committed every crumb to memory, he caged his hands around it snugly, seeing how close he could get to the biscuit without actually touching it.

Except he touched it.

When Timmy successfully made it through his ten minutes, I was apprehensive about what would happen when Daniel saw that his brother was the only one getting another biscuit. As I twisted the lid off and extended the jar to Timmy to choose from, I waited to hear the grating whine from Daniel, followed by the tears that would be much more irritating than persuasive.

It didn’t come when Timmy retrieved a second biscuit for himself.

It didn’t come when I pulled the jar back and replaced the lid.

It didn’t come when I walked back to the kitchen with it, and put it away.

I could see Daniel was watching me the whole time, though. When the jar was back in place, I took a deep silent breath, and braved eye contact with him.

“Mummy…” Daniel began.

I watched his eyes bounce to Timmy, who was crunching into his second triple-chocolate biscuit. “Yes, Daniel?”

“…May I have a apple? Please?”

Well, that was unexpected.

He lost the game, but there was an observable development in his self-regulation ability, never-the-less. While certainly encouraging, it was also extremely out of character. One data point is just a dot. Two is just a line. I need at least three to see any sort of trend.

We’ll be playing this game again.


(5) Comments

  • Rebekah
    02 Dec 2016

    I think I enjoy reading about these experiments as much as you enjoy watching them. =D

    • Eve
      02 Dec 2016

      That’s because human experimentation is entertaining. 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed this one.

  • Deborah Makarios
    02 Dec 2016

    Same here! Although I hope it doesn’t get around that I like watching family members experiment on their children…

    • Eve
      02 Dec 2016

      I’m sure nobody will ever know. Secrets are safe on the Internet. 🙂

  • Rae
    03 Dec 2016

    They will thank you when they are adults (but not before then unfortunately – until then you will be the worst kind of cow who made their lives a misery) because they will have developed self discipline, and the habit of making sacrifices now for the good of the future; and therefore more likely succeed in the real world.

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