The ability to delay gratification is an essential skill that is predictive of later life outcomes. We can exert some control to support our children in enhancing the development and practice of this important ability.
In the classic marshmallow studies of the 1960s and 1970s, researcher Walter Mischel examined the cognitive processes that underlie the ability to delay gratification with preschool-age children. The subjects were instructed that they could eat a marshmallow immediately or they could wait (for approximately 15 minutes) and receive the original treat and an additional one. The researchers then left the room and observed and recorded what occurred. The data showed that two-thirds of the children ate the marshmallow before the experimenter returned, while one-third were able to wait to earn the second treat.
The study has been replicated in other countries (Brazil, Colombia and Japan) and with various ethnic groups (African-Americans, East Indians and Hispanics), and similar results have been found. These studies suggest that significant differences in children’s ability to delay gratification are evident at an early age and observable across many cultures and ethnic groups.
The fact that the majority of children didn’t wait 15 minutes is not surprising, as 15 minutes could seem like an eternity to a 5-year-old. What is surprising is to look at how the children “waited.” Some children were very focused on the marshmallow (touching it, smelling it, looking at it) while others tried to distract themselves from the marshmallow (singing songs, closing their eyes, playing with their hands). It was the children who developed "strategic allocation of attention" or some distraction strategy that were able to delay gratification and obtain the second treat.
The study raises very provocative questions. Is it possible that this simple test has more power than an IQ test in predicting future success? Is it true that two-thirds of all who take the test and cannot delay their gratification are thus destined for lower SAT scores, less success in work and higher body mass indices? Can it be the case that this little test can tell us the future so early, and what does this mean for the way we raise our children?
New research is shedding light on these intriguing questions, altering our understanding of the study and providing important implications for how we should raise our children.
The findings that the ability to delay gratification varies greatly during the preschool years is interesting, but is it meaningful or predictive of any other life outcomes? The resounding answer is yes.
Mischel followed the original marshmallow study participants into their late 30s and found striking differences between the high delay group and the group who ate the marshmallow quickly. When compared to the subjects who ate the marshmallow within the first 30 seconds, the group that was able to delay gratification for 15 minutes were found to demonstrate: higher scores on the SATs (by about 210 points), fewer behavior problem in school, better overall achievement, less difficulties “coping” with problems, fewer problems with drugs and alcohol, and lower body mass indices. In short, the long delay group had more markers of “success” as defined by our culture.
The striking finding that by age 4, children can be identified as belonging to a low-delaying or high-delaying group, and that this membership is highly correlated with overall life success may lead many to believe that this trait is genetic and that if you are a low delayer you are doomed. This fatalistic assumption fails to take into account two very important caveats to the study.
First, Mischel found that by instructing children on how to use “metacognitive strategies” (thinking about thinking, i.e., think about the marshmallow as a cloud or think about the marshmallow as only a picture) to delay gratification, many children who initially could only wait 30 seconds could now wait 15 minutes for the marshmallow. This shows that the ability to delay gratification is not an indelible genetic trait that cannot be learned. By proving direct cues about how to use cognitive strategies to delay gratification, children can be more successful in waiting.
Whether this learning generalizes to other situations is a question, but it is instructive to know that very basic instruction in cognitive tools to delay gratification (which can take less than five minutes) can support children in applying the skill and having an experience that reinforces their waiting.
A deeper understanding of the original study came in 2012 with research from the University of Rochester that explored the importance of learning history in determining if children will delay gratification. These researchers found that when children first experienced a reliable situation before being given the marshmallow test, they were more likely to wait twice as long to obtain a treat than when they first experienced an unreliable situation. In fact, children who first experienced an unreliable situation (an experimenter said he will return with art supplies but did not), waited only three minutes before eating the marshmallow, while the children in the reliable group (received the art supplies as promised), waited four times longer for the marshmallow.
These findings, while based on a small sample, suggest that a child's prior learning experience regarding how reliable a reward is influences how much they are able or willing to delay gratification. In fact, the decision not to wait for a marshmallow or other treat may be an adaptive one, when a child knows that the situation may be unreliable and the treat may not be forthcoming. Thus a child living in poverty would be smart to eat the marshmallow right away, as would a child who lives in a family that is disorganized or unreliable.
The aforementioned studies modify our understanding of the original marshmallow study and convey two important messages. First, by supporting children in having opportunities to learn techniques to delay gratification, they can improve their ability to wait. Finding these teachable moments and giving direct instruction in cognitive techniques to use, can help children delay gratification. Second, by providing children with an environment that is reliable, children will be more likely to delay gratification, as they will be assured the reward. This entails setting up situations where a child can be successful (having to wait five minutes not 50 for a 3-year-old) so they receive the reliable reinforcement that will encourage them to behave similarly in the future.
In sum, by exposing children to a variety of opportunities that encourage delaying gratification and then supporting them in developing the skills to wait within a reliable context, a child will begin to develop a mastery of this important skill.
While some children are clearly more able to delay gratification than others, those who gobble up the marshmallow immediately are not doomed to lower SAT scores and a higher body mass index. Emerging research shows that we can teach the ability to delay gratification and provide an environment that enhances children’s ability to wait. It is true that the ability to delay gratification is predictive of later life outcomes, but we can exert some control to support our children in enhancing the development and practice of this important skill.
It is not enough to tell children that “good things come to those who wait”; we must support them in learning the cognitive strategies to wait, model this type of behavior and ensure that the environment reliably reinforces children when they do delay gratification.
Don't despair, marshmallow lovers. A direct approach to teaching and reinforcing delay of gratification within a reliable environment can make a big difference.