Young children and adults differ in many ways. The latter descriptions illustrate one important difference, however - the ability to delay gratification. One of the longest running, most famous, and to me, most interesting lines of research in the field of psychology has been conducted on delay of gratification. Today I will define this construct and explain how we quantify this ability in childhood. In future posts I’ll tell you about why delay of gratification matters and I’ll describe what helps or hurts us when we try to delay.
What is delay of gratification exactly?
This is the ability to forgo an immediate, but less desirable reward (e.g. Jersey Shore), in order to obtain a delayed, but more desirable reward later (e.g. getting into college). As I mentioned at the outset, with age we all get better at delay of gratification. Nevertheless, if we look within an age group, people differ in how well they can delay. I'm sure you can think of some friends who find it nearly impossible to study for a midterm, and others who spend their lives at the library in order to get into med school. Interestingly, individual differences in delay ability emerge in early childhood, and as I intimated, these differences in childhood predict important outcomes in later life.
How do we measure this ability in children?
Quick caveat: As I mentioned in the Psych Your Mind about the blogger section, I do some research on delay of gratification myself. Thus, I am intimately familiar with this paradigm. Let me just say, it’s a blast to watch kids do this task. Parents seem to think so as well.
Start by picturing the room. It’s completely bare. No posters, no books, no games. It doesn’t look like a place where children hang out. In the center of the room is a desk with a chair. On the desk is a bell.
Once the child establishes preference for the larger reward, the experimenter explains the contingencies of the task. “I have to go outside to set up for the next game. If you can wait until I come back all by myself, without eating any of the cookies, or leaving your seat, you can have two cookies. If, however, you decide you don’t want to wait, you can ring the bell to bring me back. BUT…if you ring the bell you can only have one cookie.”
Think about how hard this task is for a five year old. Fifteen long minutes with nothing to do. Tempting, delicious, enticing cookies sitting right there. Do you get tired of waiting, ring the bell, and get just ONE cookie? Or...do you try to keep going and going to the end and get TWO? That’s delay of gratification at its finest!
This task is pretty silly right? There are bells and cookies or marshmallows or pretzels. You might be thinking that I’m a fool, or even wicked, to have spent hours upon hours running children through this paradigm. Next week, however, I’ll tell you about all the cool and important outcomes that performance on this task predicts. Stay tuned.
As a child could you have waited 25 minutes to get two cookies? Take a guess, what do you think performance on this task predicts?