The kids are alright: Children today able to delay gratification *longer* than earlier generations

WASHINGTON — Between downloading music and movies at lightning-fast speeds or ordering a product online and having it on their doorstep hours later, it’s no surprise that today’s tech-savvy youth is considered by many as driven by instant gratification. But that belief is astonishingly off the mark when compared to earlier generations, a new study finds.

The classic test of children’s ability to delay gratification is the so-called “marshmallow test,” in which youngsters are given a small marshmallow and told that if they can refrain from eating it in a certain amount of time, they’ll be given a larger sweet snack. The goal of the initial experiment, conducted in 1960 by Walter Mischel at Stanford University, was to see if children between 3 and 5 were able to hold off on eating the marshmallow if they were rewarded for their patience. Children were shown struggling with their willpower after they were left alone in the room with the delicious treat.

Children waiting in line
A new study finds that today’s generation of children are more patient and show a stronger delay of gratification than those who participated in the “marshmallow test” conducted in the 1960s.

Over 50 years later, Mischel, now with Columbia University, and a new team of researchers compared the original test with later iterations conducted in the 1980s and the early 2000s. They found that kids tested in the early 2000s waited a full two minutes longer on average than the original set and one minute longer than the 1980s cohort.

The results ran counter to the researchers’ expectations. With the advent of smart phones and ubiquitous screens, the research team expected kids to me more impatient in recent decades than ever before.

“Although we live in an instant gratification era where everything seems to be available immediately via smartphone or the internet, our study suggests that today’s kids can delay gratification longer than children in the 1960s and 1980s,” says Dr. Stephanie M. Carlson, lead author of the study and University of Minnesota psychologist, in a release by the American Psychological Association.

“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,” she adds. “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.”

Parents should be elated with the results. The researchers polled 358 adults on whether they thought children today were more or less patient than those in the 1960s. About three-quarters believed today’s generation would not be able to wait as long as those in the earlier experiment.

Patience is more than just a virtue, especially for children, experts say. Research has shown that kids who are able to delay gratification are more likely to perform better in school and produce higher scores on their SATs. Patient children are also found to be better able to handle stress, exhibit strong social responsibility, and work well with others.

It’s for many of those reasons that the authors believe the results turned out the way they did. Children’s IQ scores were shown to be increasing over recent decades — which may be a result of the very technology many thought would be the cause of a worsened delay in gratification. Digital technology is also linked to increases in abstract thought, which also can strengthen executive functions, including patience.

A significantly higher amount of children enrolled in early education programs is also believed to be a major contributor to the development of skills kids need to exhibit better self-control, researchers say.

“We believe that 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,” says Carlson. “But our work is far from over. Inequality persists in developmental outcomes for children in poverty.”

The study was published June 25, 2018 in the journal Developmental Psychology.

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Ben Renner

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