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Reminders, not time, help curb impulsive behavior – in 3-year-olds, at least

Posted November 20, 2015

A child is staring longingly at a bowl of chocolate ice cream directly in front of her. She’s told to wait for 10 seconds and she won’t want it anymore. The urge for sweets will dissipate.

Does it work?


Probably not. Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have found that it’s not being asked to wait that curbs impulse control but rather reminders about what to do that hold the key. The findings are published in a recent issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

“Prior work has found that making children wait improved their inhibitory control, but children in those studies were also given reminders about controlling impulses,” said lead author Jane Barker, a graduate student in CU-Boulder’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience. “So we set out to test what really helped kids – just letting time pass, or getting reminders.”

The difference may seem subtle to the person who wants nothing more than to gobble down that bowl of ice cream, but the research could prove important to teachers and parents frustrated by their children’s impulsive behavior. After all, a cornerstone of academic success is the ability to stay focused versus acting out of impulse or habit.

For the study, funded in part by the National Institutes of Health, Barker and Professor Yuko Munakata, also of CU-Boulder’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, enrolled 150 3-year-olds in collaboration with the Children’s Museum of Denver. Two-thirds of the subjects were tested at CU-Boulder; one-third at the museum.

The tots were asked to play a game involving boxes and cute animal stickers.

They were told that the boxes with blue squares on top contained stickers while the boxes with red triangles on top did not. The object of the game was to reach for and open boxes that contained stickers.  The children were told not to open the empty boxes.

The children were allowed to reach toward a box either immediately or after a delay and were either reminded of goal-relevant information through verbal or physical reminders or were not reminded of the object of the game at all.

“We were surprised that adding simple reminders to the task – like quickly tapping the visual cue when children saw the box – was so effective in helping children to avoid opening boxes they shouldn’t,” Barker said.

“Our work may help to explain why asking children to delay without providing them with reminders about what they should do (for example, ‘stop and count to 10 before acting!’) is not always an effective impulse control strategy.”

Given the findings, future interventions could involve training people to look for tangible cues that remind them of what they should do, or encouraging them to set up situations where cues are always present.

Interestingly, when a delay was imposed by the child – not the researcher – it seemed to help the child open the right box. In other words, the passage of time may be a symptom rather than a cause of inhibitory control. “Children can take time to think, but giving them time does not guarantee that they will think,” the researchers wrote.

The researchers would now like to probe what aspects of the intervention improved children’s performance. For example, they think that reminding children of what they should do in the moment is probably more important than reminding them of the rules at the beginning of the task. They also want to determine whether the findings hold up for people at different ages.

“We are curious about how kids become more self-directed across time,” Barker said. “We are really interested in how those cues – or reminders – become internalized in kids. What strategies support self-directed behavior in childhood?”

Until then, while waiting a few seconds might not prevent you or your child from eating that bowl of ice cream, Googling the calorie count (if you happen to be trying to lose weight) or reminding your child a few more times throughout the day she can’t eat it because of her pending soccer game, just might.

Source: University of Colorado Boulder

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