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Can’t resist temptation? That may not be a bad thing

Researchers from the University of Rochester suggest that children raised in poverty may have been mistakenly labeled as “maladapted” for what appears to be a lack of self-control. The new study finds that what looks like selfishness may actually be beneficial behavior that’s based on a child’s environmental context – that is to say, from being raised in a resource-poor environment.

The classic 1970s “marshmallow tests” assessed impulse control in preschoolers. Children were given a choice to take a single marshmallow immediately, or to wait several minutes and earn two of the puffy treats as a reward. Children who displayed an apparent lack of self-control – demonstrated by taking the single treat–were deemed “maladapted.” Follow-up studies identified children who are raised in poverty are far less likely to postpone such sweet temptations than their economically better-off counterparts.

“What looks like impulsiveness may actually be an adaptive strategy – kids who are brought up in homes with limited resources have learned it’s advantageous to seize the moment,” said Melissa Sturge-Apple, associate professor of psychology at the University of Rochester and clinical researcher at Mt. Hope Family Center (MHFC).

Graph showing the moderating role of socioeconomics on associations between vagal tone and children's delay of gratification
Graph shows the moderating role of socioeconomics on associations between vagal tone and children’s delay of gratification
Image Credit: S. Kirchoff/U.Rochester