Wednesday, April 27, 2011

One cookie or two?

In early life we fixate on the here and now. We're driven solely by pleasure (e.g. food, social contact), and have no sense of the future consequences of our behavior. With age, however, we realize that some of those pleasures have costs. Sitting on the couch watching Jersey Shore sounds awesome, but it isn't going to help us score high on the SAT's. A tub of ice cream tastes phenomenal but it certainly isn't good for our health or our waist-line. With age we learn to think beyond immediate pleasure. We consider more important future outcomes or payoffs when determining how to behave.

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.

In comes the experimenter and the participant, a child in the age range four to eleven. The child sits down at the desk and the experimenter asks whether they would like to have one treat or two (e.g. cookies). Most kids will of course pick two, though I have to say, here in Berkeley there are plenty of health-conscious children who scoff at the idea of eating TWO cookies. Who are these kids?!

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.”

Once the child understands the task: one cookie now or two cookies later, the experimenter leaves the room. Before they do so, however, the experimenter places a plate on the desk in front of the child. The child’s options sit on the plate – two cookies on one side and one cookie on the other. Importantly, the child does not know how long the experimenter will be gone. Younger kids typically have to wait a total of 15 minutes and older kids a total of 25 minutes to get the larger reward. The amount of time the child can wait without ringing the bell is recorded, and serves as the primary measure of delay of gratification ability. 

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? 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?

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