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Study: Nurture Bigger Influence than Nature in Kids' Self-Control

A study of 100 preschoolers found self-control can be cultivated and is not always an inborn trait. (Pixabay)
A study of 100 preschoolers found self-control can be cultivated and is not always an inborn trait. (Pixabay)
May 8, 2018

BOULDER, Co. – Self-control is critical to developing healthy adult behaviors, and researchers studying willpower in children say how kids want to be perceived by peers may be just as influential as a child's natural traits or abilities.

Using the classic "marshmallow test" that allows children given one marshmallow to eat it immediately or wait until a second marshmallow is provided, researchers found that kids who wanted approval from their social group were more likely to exercise self-control when deciding whether or not to eat the marshmallow.

Researcher Sabine Doebel at CU Boulder says it's similar to when adults decide to lose weight or quit smoking and find they're more likely to succeed if they hang around with a group of friends trying to achieve the same goal.

"So what we found is that when children were told that their group waited for two marshmallows, they themselves were able to wait longer," she notes.

The study included 100 preschoolers between the ages of three and five. Doebel says the findings are important because they show that self-control isn't just about abilities or something that you have or don't have.

She says learning to practice self-control in key developmental years is important because it strengthens neural connections associated with the skill and makes it easier to practice throughout life.

"We study self-control because it's just so important in our lives," she says. "Whether or not we're going to eat that second piece of cake, whether or not we're going to study hard for that exam, it comes in everywhere in our lives and so it's important to understand how it develops."

Doebel says the study's findings run counter to prevailing assumptions that self-control is shaped by nature, and instead shows it can also be cultivated in children and even adults.

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - CO