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Children of today are better at delaying gratification than previous generations

20 September 2017

If you believed the copious alarmist commentary in the newspapers, you’d fear for the future of our species. Today’s children, we’re told, are more hyperactive and technology addicted than ever before. They’ve lost any ability to sit still, instead craving constant stimulation from digital devices and exhausted parents.

What might this mean for their performance on the most famous psychological measure of childhood self-control, Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow Test?

Surely, kids of today will struggle far more than previous generations to resist the lure of one marshmallow (or other treat) now for the promise of two in ten minutes or so, as the task requires?

In a new survey, the majority of child development experts certainly believed so.

Yet based on his analysis of 50 years worth of performance data on the Marshmallow Test – released as a preprint at the Open Science Framework – John Protzko at the University of California, Santa Barbara, concludes that in fact children of today are capable of more self-restraint than previous generations, with their ability to delay gratification having increased by about a minute per decade over the last 50 years.

Protzko combined the results from every published and unpublished use of the Marshmallow Test that he could find, starting with Mischel’s seminal work first published in 1968 and including 4 studies in the 1970s, 3 in the 1990s, 6 in the 2000s, and 16 in our current decade, all involving children aged ten or younger.

Protzko speculates that the gap in the 1980s is due to the introduction at that time of a rival test of self-regulation which is quicker to administer – the so-called gift-delay task.

Read more on our Research Digest blog.

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