Learning By Doing
Rewind the clock a bit. You are four years old. We are seated in an empty room, except for a table, chair, and your favorite treat. It could be a pretzel, an animal cookie, or a marshmallow. I'm going to make a deal with you. If you avoid eating the treat while I step out of the room, you can eat the treat and you will get a second treat. In other words, if you can sit, by yourself, for 15 minutes without eating the treat, I will give you two treats. Sound like a deal? Can you resist this temptation? Excuse me while I step out.
Oh the Pain! The Agony!You're not the first person to face this challenge. If you haven't seen it already, take a moment to watch this video of kids attempting to tackle the self-control task. It's amusing to watch, especially when the kids are paired with a sibling. Some kids enjoy the snack right away, while others employ various strategies to distract themselves. They close their eyes, tap on the table, and even lick the marshmallow. For some, the distractions work. But for others, they eventually fall victim to the awful temptation.
In one of the first experiments to investigate delayed gratification, the experimenters divided the kids into four different groups . All of the groups had two different types of rewards: a preferred reward (i.e., animal cookies) and a less-preferred reward (i.e., pretzels). The first group didn't have to face any of the temptations because the experimenter took the treats with them as they left the room. That way, the child didn't need to look at them during the waiting period. The second group had to look at both of the rewards during the waiting period. The third group was left with the preferred reward; and the fourth group looked at the less-preferred reward. The experimenter stepped out of the room for a maximum of 15 minutes. The child could signal to the experimenter that he or she was done waiting by eating one of the available treats.
Can you guess which group was able to wait the longest? Were the kids who had no temptation able to wait the longest? Or were the kids who were promised the best possible set of treats more motivated to wait the maximum amount of time?
What Does This Predict Later in Life?As you may have predicted, the kids who didn't face the temptation were able to wait the longest (see Figure 1). In fact, they were able to wait almost ten times longer than the children who were exposed to both the preferred and less-preferred rewards.
|Figure 1. The amount of time the children waited |
as a function of experimental condition.
These results are interesting in their own right, but you might also be wondering: Is the waiting time predictive of outcomes later in life? How is a child's ability to forgo immediate gratification impact other aspects of their lives?
To investigate the answers to these types of questions, Dr. Walter Mischel, who was the lead author on the first study, decided to follow the same group of kids through their teenage years. What they found may surprise you. They found a moderate to large correlation between the amount of time the kids were able to wait and their SAT scores (Verbal SAT: r = 0.42; Quantitative SAT: r = 0.57). In other words, the longer the kids were able to wait, the higher their SAT scores. This is surprising because the behavior that the children demonstrated at the tender age of four had an impact on their lives 10 years later!
The S.T.E.M. ConnectionNow the tough question: Can delayed gratification be taught? There seemed to be mixed evidence. On the negative side, experimenters tried to teach the children various strategies, including hiding the temptation from view, or giving them "ideation strategies" which included thinking about topics other than the temptation. Unfortunately, those strategies did not increase the waiting time by the kids .
On the positive side, however, there have been several different interventions that seem to show promising results on developing student's executive functioning . Executive functioning relates to the mental processes of planning, reasoning, self-control, and self-discipline. Thus, if these interventions can have a positive impact on executive functioning, then they might also increase a child's ability to delay gratification. Some of the interventions include mindfulness training (i.e., meditation), martial arts that focus on discipline (e.g., Tae-Kwon-Do), aerobic activity, and even academic curricula that focus on self-management and impulse control (e.g., Tools of the Mind).
In conclusion, it seems there are large individual differences in children's ability to delay gratification, and these early tendencies have a lasting impact on their development. The available evidence seems to suggest that interventions can improve self-control and discipline. So the next time we want our students to make the right choice, we will be there to remind them: Don't eat the marshmallow now! Wait until you're and adult...then you can buy all the marshmallows you want!
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Going Beyond the Information Given Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., & Rodriguez, M. L. (1989). Delay of gratiﬁcation in children. Science, 244(4907), 933-938.
 Shoda, Y., Mischel, W., & Peake, P. K. (1990). Predicting adolescent cognitive and self-regulatory competencies from preschool delay of gratification: Identifying diagnostic conditions. Developmental Psychology, 26(6), 978.
 Diamond, A., & Lee, K. (2011). Interventions shown to aid executive function development in children 4 to 12 years old. Science, 333(6045), 959-964.