African farmers’ kids conquer the marshmallow test

Friday, June 30th, 2017

The first study to administer the marshmallow test to non-Western kids has demonstrated that African farmers’ kids can wait patiently:

Of 76 Nso 4-year-olds, 53, or nearly 70 percent, waited 10 minutes for a second treat — a small local pastry called a puff-puff — without eating the puff-puff placed on a table in front of them, say psychologist Bettina Lamm of Osnabrück University in Germany and colleagues.

Only 35 of 125 German 4-year-olds, or 28 percent, successfully waited for their choice of a second lollipop or chocolate bar.

Nso Farmboy

Among 63 of the German youngsters videotaped in play sessions with their mothers at age 9 months, those whose mothers were most lenient in letting them determine what to do displayed the least patience on the marshmallow test at age 4, the researchers say.

Researchers have long argued that “authoritative parenting,” marked by giving children freedom within specific limits, fosters self-control needed for academic and social success (SN: 8/19/89, p. 117). German kids who waited for a second treat had mothers who dealt with them authoritatively as 9-month-olds, Lamm says.

Nso mothers typically had an authoritative parenting style, keeping their kids close and training them to keep emotions in check and respect their elders, especially those high in a community’s pecking order. For 57 Nso kids recorded in play with their mothers at age 9 months, mothers consistently took the lead in organizing play activities.

Nso children’s self-control grew out of their mothers’ authoritarian, controlling parenting style, Lamm suspects.

Children also displayed cultural differences in how they tried to resist temptation during the marshmallow test. German kids tried to distract themselves while waiting for a second treat by moving about, turning around, singing, talking and even leaving the room. Nso youngsters waiting for a second treat exhibited little emotion and remained largely still. Eight of them fell asleep in their chairs.

Some previously tested Western children have rested their heads on the table and taken naps as a tactic to ignore available treats. But Nso kids appeared to zonk out spontaneously, slumping over in their chairs, Lamm says.

As a result of authoritarian parenting practices, Nso kids either squelch negative emotions or experience negative emotions in a different, more controllable way than Western peers do, she proposes.

Ayduk notes that it’s not clear whether Nso youngsters truly had greater self-control or if, true to farming community standards, they simply obeyed adults who asked them to wait for a second puff-puff, Ayduk adds.

My first thought is that African children probably don’t snack all day. Modern American kids don’t wait to eat.


  1. Carl says:

    How long until Chanda Chisala uses this as evidence that Africans are just as smart as anyone else?

  2. Graham says:

    I don’t know how patience correlates with other forms of intelligence but colour me unsurprised that African kids can display greater stoicism and discipline that contemporary European or American kids. I’d have been shocked by any other result.

  3. Aretae says:

    Patience is highly correlated with IQ among similarly-typed kids.

    Patience tends to predict life-success better than IQ. But there’s massive overlap usually.

  4. Kirk says:

    The real question isn’t in how long the kid waits under supervision, but whether or not the “delayed gratification” that’s going on is something that the kid can work out for themselves and then implement. This is an interesting indicator, but I suspect that there’s less of significance going on here than we might think. The results can be seen in the societies formed by the adults raising these kids. Sure, the kid may wait for a treat, but can the adult put off reward for long-term benefits? Can the adult differentiate between pleasure/pain now vs. distant planned reward?

    Friend of mine did a lot of reading in anthropology because he was a Green Beret, and was puzzled by the differences he found working in Southeast Asia and Africa vs. the predominantly North European culture he grew up in. What he concluded was that the vastly different societies stemmed from one thing, and one thing only: The necessity to prepare and plan for long winters. In the tropics, the feckless can merely move a few miles, and find more abundant food sources. In the north? You fail to plan and prepare, you’re going to freeze to death after eating your kids, especially in the agrarian cultures. In Africa and many of the Asian cultures he worked in, you would go and say “Hey, let’s work on building this X so life can be better in a year…”, and the locals would look at him as though they thought him mad. Their horizon for “future benefit” is nearly instantaneous, while the long-term is something that will take care of itself. The enervating effects of hot weather, rain, and disease were also features he identified as problematic–The landscape is lush, food is easy to find, but the inability to build anything that lasts leads to a passive lassitude about things like building and maintaining roads.

    So, TL;DR–This is interesting, but I’m not sure that it really tells us much about things of significance. Children who can wait ten minutes for a second treat may not grow up into adults who can plan and actually execute, when working towards long-term goals. It’s the patience of the hunter compared to the patience of a farmer…

  5. Talnik says:

    I think we are missing the bigger picture here. The Nso kids aren’t getting enough sleep.

  6. Steve Johnson says:

    Since they have smaller brains and less complex behaviors Africans develop more quickly. The mismatch in development level won’t show up on a test of intelligence but it will show up on a test of emotional development.

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