Today’s kids able to delay gratification longer

Key findings of a new study published June 25 by the American Psychological Association say today’s youngsters may be able to delay gratification significantly longer than those of the 1960s.

These findings stand in stark contrast with the assumption by adults that today’s children have less self-control than previous generations, says University of Minnesota psychologist Stephanie M. Carlson, lead researcher on this study.

The study references the original “marshmallow test” in which most preschoolers some 50 years ago ate up one treat immediately rather than wait several minutes to get two. The test led by researcher Walter Mischel, then of Stanford University, involved a series of experiments in which children ages 3 to 5 years old were offered one marshmallow, cookie or pretzel that they could eat immediately or two of each treat if they waited. Researchers then left the room to see how long the children waited, watching behind a one-way mirror.

The ability to delay gratification in early childhood has been associated with a range of positive outcomes in teens and beyond, including greater academic competence, healthier weight, effective coping with stress and frustration, social responsibility and positive relations with peers.

Carlson and her associated looked at results from the original marshmallow test and replications conducted in the 1980s and early 2000s. They found that kids participating in these studies in the 2000s waited an average of two minutes longer in a 10-minute period than those from the 1960s, and one minute longer than those who tested in the 1980s.

Possible explanations for why children in the 2000s waited longer than those in prior decades included a statistically significant increase in IQ scores in the last several decades. These IQ scores are linked to rapidly changing technologies, increased globalization and corresponding changes in the economy, they said.

And increases in abstract thought, associated with digital technology, may contribute to executive function skills such as delay of gratification, they said.

Carlson said another explanation may be society’s increased focus on the importance of early education.

The study was published in the APA journal Developmental Psychology.