Cultural and parenting differences sometimes have unexpected consequences: children of Nso farmers in Cameroon have mastered the marshmallow test, and they’re able to show restraint when faced with the prospect of a bigger reward.

A 4-year-old boy from a Nso farming community in Cameroon faces down a puff-puff pastry while waiting for a second treat during a battle of self-control known as the marshmallow test. The Nso children were offered traditional African pastry instead of marshmallows. Image credits: Culture and Development Lab / Osnabrück University.

The Marshmallow Experiment

In the late 1960s and early 1960s, a psychologist called Walter Mischel, then a professor at Stanford University, had an interesting idea. He devised a simple but efficient way of studying a child’s restraint — by offering sweets. The basic version of the experiment goes like this: you offer a child a sweet (a marshmallow or something else). You tell him he can eat it, or wait 15 minutes, in which case he would get an even bigger treat. The researcher exits the room, leaving the child alone with the sweet. Of course, several variations of this study have been carried out, and several improvements have been proposed (i.e. creating a trust relationship between the child and the researcher, so that the child is certain he will receive the reward), but the bottom line has remained unchanged: it’s a way of studying self-restraint and delayed gratification.

The experiment was first carried out in Trinidad, where Mischel noted that the racial differences between children greatly influenced the test results. Namely, Indian children showing far more ability to delay gratification compared to African students. Subsequently, other studies would go on to describe how children who fared better at the experiment (as in waited for the delayed gratification) got higher SAT scores and on average, were also healthier and earned higher income than those who just ate the mushroom.

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The largest such study, conducted on 600 children, at Stanford, reported that while only a few children ate the treat immediately, only a third of them waited the entire 15 minutes. A German study similarly reported that only 28% of children ‘passed’ the test, and that rate seemed to be representative of all the populations in the western world.

The Nso children

The Nso are a people who inhabit the Northwest Region of Cameroon. Their cultural differences to German or American children are huge but in terms of parenting, the Nso tend to be much more authoritative. While German kids, for instance, are encouraged to follow their desires and express themselves, Nso mothers, who play the key role in raising the children, focus on hierarchical relationship and exert much more control than their western counterparts. This was evident when they took the marshmallow test: 70% passed it. Researchers also noted some differences in terms of behavior during the test — while most Western kids would try to distract themselves by walking around the room, singing, or even leaving the room, the Nso kids exhibited little emotion. They remained, mostly motionless, waiting for the time to pass. Eight of them fell asleep in their chairs. They didn’t intentionately try to nap to pass the time, they just zoned out spontaneously.

“The disparity between German and Nso cultures on the marshmallow test is huge,” says psychologist Ozlem Ayduk of the University of California, Berkeley. She concurs that parenting practices among Nso farmers may at least partly boost children’s ability to delay gratification.

This could be explained by the parenting approach. Nso mothers typically keep their kids close and they don’t put much emphasis on personal freedom. In their social order, it’s extremely important to respect your elders and keep your emotions in check. They’re clear examples of what you would call authoritative parenting.

Some researchers have long argued that authoritative parenting fosters the self-control needed for academic and social success, which seems to also be indirectly indicated here (kids from authoritative parents fared better at the marshmallow test, and those who fare better at the marshmallow test fare better at those aspects). However, it’s not fully clear that this is what’s happening here.

Ayduk says that the Nso kids might simply be more inclined to follow the rules, and they might have felt that waiting is the rule of the game. Whatever the case may be, it’s an interesting finding which prompts even more questions. It’s important to note that this is almost certainly not caused by a technological difference. The Nso are farmers, but researchers expect that carrying the same test on hunter-gatherer populations (which greatly cherish individual freedom) would yield very different results. Unfortunately, an experiment like this has never been carried out.