Wednesday, May 4, 2011

One cookie or two: Part 2

Last week I introduced you to work on delay of gratification – the ability to forgo an immediate, but less desirable reward, in order to obtain a more desirable reward later on. I described the way psychologists assess delay of gratification in childhood – with the famous delay (a.k.a. “marshmallow”) task.

If you didn’t read the prior post, or can’t remember the task, take a look back before reading on. A quick reminder…a child waits A LONG TIME, ALONE, with NOTHING TO DO, in order to receive two treats rather than have just one treat immediately. The amount of time the child can wait serves as the measure of delay of gratification ability.

As I already mentioned, this task seems pretty ridiculous (albeit awesome to watch). Yet, I promised to describe “…all the cool and important outcomes behavior during this task predicts.” I will get to those outcomes today. 

First let me provide a little historical context:
There are few psychology majors, and almost no psychology graduate students or professors who haven’t heard of Walter Mischel. In addition to his groundbreaking work on personality, Mischel created the delay of gratification task that I’ve described. Mischel’s original work on delay of gratification focused on understanding the features of the task that helped or hurt a child’s chances of waiting. For example, can children wait longer when the treats are sitting right in front of them or when they are covered? (What did he find? I’ll get to that in my next post)

In addition to this experimental research, Mischel was curious about whether individual differences in performance on the delay task relates to functioning in later life. Is this task capturing something about a child that is important and long-lasting? To answer this question, Mischel followed a group of participants overtime. These committed participants (and their parents) have completed various follow up assessments between the late 1960’s and early 1970’s (when they first completed the task) through to the present. 


So what does early delay of gratification ability predict?
Mischel and colleagues found that the amount of time the children could wait during the delay task when they were four and five years old did in fact predict a variety of important outcomes in later life (see Mischel, Shoda & Rodriguez, 1989 for a great summary). Here are some of the most interesting.

Children that waited longer…

1) Were rated by their parents as more attentive, planful, and intelligent when those participants were in adolescence.

2) Evidenced less aggressive behavior and experienced less social rejection.

3) Had higher self-worth and lower drug use in adolescence and early adulthood.

4) Scored higher on the SAT’s, especially the quantitative component.

Now parents, before you go crazy trying to set up a mock version of this task at home, I do want to make one small point. These results are based on group averages, not on any one individual, and only on one group of participants. Be careful not to go labeling your child as a future success or a future failure based on what you suspect they would do during the delay task.

That caveat aside, these results are pretty astounding. How long a four year old waits during this silly task  relates to their functioning in later life. Something seems to be crystallizing at a young age that serves as the scaffolding for functioning across the lifespan. It’s for this reason that the task remains interesting and important to study. It’s not torture people. It’s science!

Next time, what are the mechanisms underlying delay of gratification ability? What helps a child wait? What hurts their chances? Stay tuned!

Take a guess, any idea what factors determine whether a child can wait? Why do you think this task is predictive of later life outcomes?

Here's the article:
Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Rodriguez, M. (1989). Delay of gratification in children Science, 244 (4907), 933-938 DOI: 10.1126/science.2658056

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