Research Brief: Today's kids able to delay gratification longer than those in 1960s

June 25, 2018
Little boy standing in the kitchen trying reach for chocolate chip cookies.

A new study led by a University of Minnesota researcher found kids today were able to delay gratification longer than kids in the 1960s, despite predictions by adults that children now have less self-control than 50 years ago.

“Although we live in an instant gratification era where everything seems to be available immediately via smartphone or the internet, our study suggests today’s kids can delay gratification longer than children in the 1960s and 1980s,” said lead author Stephanie M. Carlson, Ph.D., a Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development. “This finding stands in stark contrast with the assumption by adults that today’s children have less self-control than previous generations.”

The two-part study, published this month in the journal Developmental Psychology, measured adults’ perceptions of self-control in kids today and compared children’s performance across decades on the “Marshmallow Test,” a common research tool used to measure children’s ability to delay gratification.

The Marshmallow Test, developed by study co-author Walter Mischel, Ph.D., while at Stanford University in the 1960s, asks children to choose between taking an immediate, smaller reward – like one marshmallow – or waiting and receiving a larger award, like two marshmallows. Delaying gratification in early childhood has been linked to positive outcomes later in life, such as higher academic achievement, healthy weight, positive peer relationships and effective coping with stress.

For the first part of the study, Carlson and her colleagues conducted an online survey of 358 U.S. adults to gauge how long they thought children today would wait compared with children from the 1960s. According to the survey, 72 percent of respondents thought children today would wait for a shorter period of time and 75 percent believed that children today would have less self-control.

To test these predictions using their own data, Carlson and colleagues compared how children performed on the original Marshmallow Test in the 1960s with how children performed on replications of the test in the 1980s and 2000s. They found children who participated in studies in the 2000s waited an average of two minutes longer than those from the 1960s and one minute longer than those in the 1980s.

“That ability to wait did not appear to be due to any change in methodology, setting or geography, or the age, sex or socioeconomic status of the children,” Carlson said. “We also took steps to ensure none of the children in the 2000s group were on medication to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder at the time of the study.”

According to the study’s authors, several factors may have contributed to an increase in children’s ability to delay gratification across time. “We believe increases in abstract thought, along with rising preschool enrollment, changes in parenting and, paradoxically, cognitive skills associated with screen technologies, may be contributing to generational improvements in the ability to delay gratification,” Carlson said. “But our work is far from over. Inequality persists in developmental outcomes for children in poverty.”

Carlson’s contributions to this study were supported by grant no. R03HD041473 and grant no. R01HD051495 from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

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About the Institute of Child Development:
The University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development (ICD) strives to be a catalyst for improving lives beginning in childhood through academic programming, research, and community outreach. Founded in 1925 and now part of the College of Education and Human Development, the Institute is one of the longest-running departments studying child and adolescent development in the United States.

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