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Education Lab Blog

Education Lab is a project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

October 17, 2014 at 5:00 AM

UW viral video: Toddler leaves toy alone to avoid an adult’s anger

Move over marshmallow test, there’s a new video showing the struggles of a toddler to control his impulses and it comes right out of the University of Washington.

The new UW video — which has tallied more than 750,000 hits since it was posted 10 days ago  re-enacts an experiment in a study from the UW’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences that is published in the current issue of the journal, Cognitive Development.

The researchers wanted to find out if 15-month-old children could resist the natural urge to copy an adult playing with a toy by figuring out that doing so would make someone else mad at them.

Turns out they can.

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The video replicates what the researchers did in the study: A woman rattles a bead necklace into a cup while a blond 15-month-old boy watches intently.

Then another woman comes into the room and sits down to read a magazine.

The first researcher drops the necklace into the cup again, but this time, the woman with the magazine complains angrily about the rattling noise. The first researcher disagrees and the angry lady again declares that the noise is aggravating.

The toddler is a bystander to the adults’ argument, but his head tracks it as if he were watching a ping-pong match.

Now it’s the toddler’s turn to play with the toy.

He glances over at the angry lady, and then stares long and hard at the cup and necklace in front of him on the table. But he leaves them alone, demonstrating the inhibition effect that the researchers observed in the study of 150 children the same age.

Lead researchers Betty Repacholi and Andrew Meltzoff, co-director of the Institute, wanted to make sure that kids weren’t just scared of the angry lady, so sometimes they had her turn her back to the children.

When the children saw that she wasn’t watching, they didn’t hesitate to play with the toy.

Meltzoff talked about the study Wednesday night at forum on early learning, the first of a new event series, LiveWire, sponsored by The Seattle Times.

So far the UW video is the university’s second most popular video. Last year’s “brain to brain” communication video has about 1.2 million views.

The famous marshmallow experiment from Stanford, now more than four decades old, tested the willpower of preschoolers by giving them a simple choice: get one tasty treat immediately, or get two about 15 minutes later.

Videos abound on YouTube of charming preschoolers left alone in the room with the single marshmallow, creatively resisting its temptations or caving in.

The UW study shows much younger children inhibiting their impulses so they don’t become the target of an adult’s anger, though children who had more impulsive temperaments to begin with were more likely to play with the toy anyway.

That doesn’t sound soft and fluffy like a marshmallow, but the ability to learn social rules by seeing what happens to other people when they break them can spare children from having to learn those lessons firsthand.

For example, it would be safer for a child to learn not to poke the electrical outlet by watching an older sibling get scolded for doing that than by trying it himself , the researchers note.

Comments | More in News | Topics: early learning, social and emotional learning, University of Washington

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