In the 1960s, researchers conducted the original “marshmallow test” measruing the self-control levels of preschoolers as they sat in front of a treat. Most of the children in the study chose to gobble up one treat immediately rather than wait several minutes to get a bigger treat. The study was replicated in the 1980s and then again in the 2000s.
In a new study, researchers at the University of Minnesota compared the marshmallow test results from each of these generations and found that kids in the 2000s were able to delay gratification an average of two minutes longer than kids in the 60s and a minute longer than children in the 80s.
The researchers also conducted a survey asking adults how they thought today’s young kids would do on a test of self-control. The survey results were in contrast to the findings of the marshmallow tests: 75 percent of the surveyed adults believed that children today would have less self-control than children of the 60s.
The findings are published in the American Psychological Association (APA) journal Developmental Psychology.
“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,” said University of Minnesota psychologist Stephanie M. Carlson, Ph.D., lead researcher on the study.
“This finding stands in stark contrast with the assumption by adults that today’s children have less self-control than previous generations.”
The original marshmallow test, as it’s come to be called, was conducted by researchers led by Walter Mischel, Ph.D., then at Stanford University. It involved a series of experiments in which children ages 3-5 years were offered one treat that they could eat immediately (for example, a marshmallow, cookie or pretzel) or a larger treat (another marshmallow, cookie or pretzel) if they were able to wait.
Researchers then left the room and watched the children from behind a one-way mirror.
The ability to delay gratification in early childhood is linked to a range of positive outcomes later in life. These include greater academic competence and higher SAT scores, healthier weight, effective coping with stress and frustration, social responsibility and positive relations with peers.
The researchers looked at results from the original marshmallow test, as well as from the replications conducted in the 1980s and early 2000s. In contrast to expectations, kids who participated in the studies in the 2000s waited an average of two minutes longer (during a 10-minute period) than those from the 1960s, and one minute longer than those tested in the 1980s.
Interestingly, today’s adults thought that children nowadays would be more impulsive, Carlson found. The online survey involved 358 U.S. adults who were asked how long they thought children today would wait for a larger treat compared with kids in the 1960s. Approximately 72 percent thought children today would wait less long, and 75 percent believed that children today would have less self-control.
“Our findings serve as an example of how our intuition can be wrong and how it’s important to do research,” said co-author Yuichi Shoda, Ph.D., of the University of Washington. “If we hadn’t been systematically collecting data on how long children wait in this type of experiment, and if we hadn’t analyzed the data, we would not have found these changes.”
“They pose an interesting and important question for future research to understand: Are the changes we found in our sample unique, or do they apply more broadly to children from more diverse backgrounds? What is causing the change, and what are the mechanisms through which these changes occur?”
“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.”
The researchers offer several possible explanations for why 2000s children were able to wait longer than those in previous decades. They noted a statistically significant increase in IQ scores in the last several decades, which has been linked to rapidly changing technologies, increased globalization and corresponding changes in the economy.
At a more psychological level, increases in abstract thought, which is linked to digital technology, may contribute to executive function skills such as delay of gratification, they said.
Or it could be society’s increased focus on the importance of early education, according to Carlson. In 1968, only 15.7 percent of all 3- and 4-year-olds in the United States attended preschool. That number increased to more than 50 percent by the year 2000.
In addition, the main goal of preschool changed from caretaking to school readiness in the 1980s, with an emphasis on self-control as a foundation for educational success. Parenting also has changed in ways that help promote the development of executive function, such as being more supportive of children’s autonomy and less controlling, the researchers noted.
“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,” Carlson said. “But our work is far from over. Inequality persists in developmental outcomes for children in poverty.”
Walter Mischel, of Columbia University, who also co-authored this paper, noted that “while the results indicate that the sampled children’s ability to delay is not diminished on the marshmallow test, the findings do not speak to their willingness to delay gratification when faced with the proliferation of temptations now available in everyday life.”