The choice to save for the future rather than spend now. The choice to work on that project rather than watch a television show.
Both are examples of delaying gratification, or the ability to put off immediate benefits in favor of larger, long-term rewards. Children are not born with this ability. Rather, it develops with time and experience. This post explores one method used by psychologists to measure children’s ability to delay gratification, along with strategies to enhance children’s self-control.
Development of the ability to delay gratification
Often referred to as the “Marshmallow Test”, researchers have measured children’s delay of gratification by presenting 4- to 12-year-olds with a simple dilemma: children are presented with a treat (such as a marshmallow), and told that they can either eat the treat now, or wait 15 minutes to receive an additional treat. Younger children are especially tempted by the immediate reward. Within one group of 4-year-olds, some ate the treat immediately, most waited several minutes, and 31% waited the full 15 minutes to receive the larger reward.
When researchers followed up with these preschoolers, they found that performance in this task predicted outcomes in many areas of life. Teenagers who were better at delaying gratification as preschoolers were more successful academically, with higher SAT scores and a better ability to manage stress. They had greater social skills, displayed fewer problem behaviors as adolescents and had a healthier bodyweight in adulthood. These findings highlight the importance of individual differences in self-control, with the ability to regulate responses and resist temptation contributing to the marshmallow test and academic, social, and health outcomes.
Strategies to enhance children’s self-control
Importantly, the ability to delay gratification is not fixed or unchangeable, despite the link between self-control across childhood and adulthood. Researchers have discovered several strategies to help young children delay gratification in situations like the marshmallow test.
- Highlight the pride in delaying gratification. Achieving long-term goals elicits pride, while immediate desires tend to bring about feelings of joy. Shifting children’s focus towards these different emotions can change their motivation, leading them to pursue different goals. For example, in one study, 8-year-olds who were prompted to think about feelings of pride were more likely to choose a larger, delayed reward compared to those who focused on joy. Effective prompts included imagining future situations that would make them feel pride.
- Prompt reflection when feeling regret. Failure to delay gratification can be a learning experience, with feelings of regret signalling the need to do something differently next time. To illustrate, 6- and 7-year-olds were given a choice between an immediate and delayed reward. Those who picked the immediate reward were later shown the larger reward and asked to reflect on their choice. Children who experienced regret were more likely to wait for the delayed reward when faced with the same choice the next day.
- Practice self-control in different situations. Practicing self-control in low-stakes situations can strengthen this ability in other parts of life. Even simple games let children practice focusing their attention, switching between sets of rules, and inhibiting automatic responses. In one study, 7-year-olds played various games, including one where they danced when music played, froze when it stopped, and had to switch between matching the song’s tempo or dancing slowly to fast songs and slowly to fast songs. Participation in these effortful games over 3 months improved children’s ability to delay gratification during the marshmallow test.
Learning when and how to delay gratification is an important part of development. Fostering this ability helps children know how to spend their time and effort, and later their money.
Julia is an associate behavioral scientist at BEworks. Julia holds a PhD in Developmental Psychology from the University of British Columbia, where she studied social and cognitive development from infancy into childhood.