The capability of gratification delay in young children nowadays seems to be enhanced.
In the last century, one experiment became widely famous among psychologists due to its relevance for clarifying some aspects of child development. It was the Marshmallow experiment conducted by Walter Mischel in the early 1970s. Mischel and his colleagues recruited children aged from 3 to 5 to participate in their study. The main purpose of that research was to investigate voluntary self-control among young children and to explore their capability to delay gratification. The temptation, in this case, was the marshmallow sweet.
So, how did the researchers induce the conflict in participants? They told the children that, if they don’t eat the marshmallow for a certain period of time, they will be awarded with one extra piece. Overall three studies were conducted, which ensured many findings related to self-control. For instance, in the first study, the experimenter was sitting in front of the child, which appeared to extend the delaying period. On the contrary, inducing sad thoughts led to decrease in waiting time. Likewise, encouraging children to think about the marshmallow caused shortening of gratification delay. Afterward (approximately 10 years later) the researchers assessed life outcomes in those children and associated them with duration of the waiting period in prior experiment. These outcomes included academic success, dependability, verbal fluency, body weight, relationship with peers, etc. Findings indicated that children who delayed gratification for a longer period reached a better outcome in each of the mentioned characteristics. Mischel and his colleagues thus concluded that greater self-control is indeed a good predictor of higher life quality and success.
Moreover, some other research teams decided to replicate the original study and compare the new findings with those discovered by Walter Mischel. In the experiments conducted by Stephanie M. Carlson from the University of Minnesota, back in the 80s, the children waited averagely one minute longer than those in the original study. Also, in the 2000s’ study, the participants prolonged the average delay time by one additional minute than the children that participated 20 years before. Therefore, these findings lead to the conclusion that the children have raised their self-control level in the last five decades.
Nevertheless, when parents are being asked to estimate the rate of children’s self-control comparing to the 60s, they report a belief in less capability of gratification delay today. It is somewhat reasonable for parents to believe that children have lower self-control today than half of decade ago, due to the growing availability of various gratifications nowadays. Although 75% of parents in the sample are convinced that modern society has a negative impact on children’s self-control, findings of the studies conducted by Carlson show just the opposite.
The potential reasons for these findings can be found in the increase of global IQ scores, as well as more autonomy and freedom that children are provided with by their caregivers today. If parents are less controlling, children can develop executive function earlier in their life. Finally, since in the modern society the emphasis on education is placed earlier during children’s development, the growth of self-control rate might be influenced by educational system as well.