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When Selfishness is Beneficial

Can’t resist temptation? That may not be a bad thing, according to a new study.

New research from the University of Rochester suggests that what looks like selfishness may actually be beneficial behavior based on an environmental context.

They noted that the classic 1970s “marshmallow tests” that assessed impulse control in preschoolers might have gotten it wrong.

In that experiment, children were given a choice to take a single marshmallow immediately, or to wait several minutes and earn two of the 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 Dr. Melissa Sturge-Apple, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Rochester and clinical researcher at Mt. Hope Family Center (MHFC).

For the new study, Sturge-Apple and her colleagues measured the vagal tone of preschoolers before they participated in reward-based experiments.

The vagus nerve streams information from the heart, lungs, stomach, and other organs to the brain. It’s associated with the moderation of moods, including fear and anxiety.

High vagal tone is a physiological indicator of what we would call “grace under fire” — the body’s ability to slow down heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, which can allow for a thoughtful response, the researchers explained.

Previous research in reward-based studies has shown that for children from higher income households, high vagal tone is predictive of their ability to delay gratification. The higher their vagal tone, the longer these children can delay. They are able to keep calm, wait, and earn additional rewards, the researchers noted.

In the new study, however, children from lower income households who have high vagal tone did not demonstrate the same behavior as middle class children. In fact, it was just the opposite.

For children living in poverty, the higher their vagal tone, the quicker they decided to take the single treat — M&Ms candies in this case — and not wait despite the promise of more.

“From a normative model of psychology, this result makes no sense,” she said. “But when we considered what would be the most optimal behavior in a high-risk environment, then this makes complete sense — it’s survival of the quickest.”

“Context means everything,” she continued. “When all is well and prosperous, kids who are highly attuned to what is going on around them can wait, but when things are scarce and unpredictable, then the question becomes ‘why wait?’”

The study was published in Psychological Science.

Source: University of Rochester 

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

When Selfishness is Beneficial

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). When Selfishness is Beneficial. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 26 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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