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Delayed gratification is not nearly willpower

May 16, 2023
Homeschooling Blogs

Sometimes the smart thing is to reject an immediate reward in order to wait for something better. But this isn’t always the case, and delayed gratification isn’t always a matter of willpower. For example, when adults appear unreliable – or downright untrustworthy – kids choose instant rewards over future benefits. And children show an increased willingness to wait if they believe their peers will do the same.

If you’ve read about self-control and delayed gratification in children, you’ve probably heard of the marshmallow test. Sit a child down at a table, offer the kid a marshmallow, and make the following promise:

“You can eat this now if you want, but if you wait 15 minutes until I come back, and I see you haven’t eaten it, I will give you another one. You’ll end up with two marshmallows.”

What do kids do? Some show great powers of delayed gratification, not touching that marshmallow for the entire 15 minutes. Others give in to temptation within seconds.

And it seems to matter. When researchers have followed up on the preschoolers who’d participated in the first marshmallow experiments of the 1970s, they have found that a child’s performance on the test was a predictor of many later outcomes: Kids who’d waited the longest went on to score higher on scholastic achievement tests (Shoda et al 1990). They were also more likely to finish college and end up with lower body mass indices, or BMIs (Schlam et al 2013).

Subsequent research has reported smaller effects, especially after controlling for socioeconomic status (Watts et al 2018). But it still appears that this early ability to delay gratification is predictive of later achievement (Doebel et al 2020; Falk et al 2020; Watts and Duncan 2020).

So the marshmallow tells us which kids possess the willpower needed for lifetime success. But does it really? Can we assume that kids who do poorly on the marshmallow test – and real-world equivalents of the marshmallow test – are suffering from a special deficit of self-control? Or is it possible that these seemingly “impulsive” kids are responding to the cues around them and making smart choices?

Some kids have learned hard lessons about the world. The adults they know don’t keep promises, and nobody seems to enforce fairness. When these kids get something nice, they know that somebody bigger may come along and take it away.

That’s what struck Celeste Kidd back in 2012, when she was a student earning her Ph.D. in Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester. She was watching children at a homeless shelter — children who lived in a dog-eat-dog environment, where theft was common, and adults rarely intervened.

How would these kids behave in a marshmallow test? As Kidd notes in a university press release, the answer seemed clear. ‘”All of these kids would eat the marshmallow right away.”

So she designed a clever new version of the marshmallow experiment, and got some astonishing results. If you manipulate a child’s trust in the adult, you radically change his or her performance on the marshmallow test (Kidd et al 2013).

Delayed gratification and broken promises

The experiment went like this. A child is seated at a table in “art project room” where there is a tightly-sealed jar of used crayons, and a friendly adult presents the child with a choice: Either use these crayons now, or wait until the adult returns with some nicer, brand-new crayons.

Next, one of two things happened:

  • In the reliable condition, the adult returned after a couple of minutes with the new crayons.
  • In the unreliable condition, the adult came back empty-handed and apologized. “I’m sorry, but I made a mistake. We don’t have any other art supplies after all…”

This was repeated a second time with a promise of fancy stickers. Again, some kids were rewarded for waiting. Other kids waited only to get an apology that the stickers couldn’t be found.

And then — finally — kids were offered the marshmallow and given the choice. Eat one now, or wait and get two later.

The results? Children varied in their responses, and adult reliability made a big difference.

Children in the reliable condition – who had previously received the promised rewards – waited four times as long their counterparts did.

Moreover, kids in the reliable condition were more likely to wait the full 15 minutes. Nine of the 14 children in the reliable condition waited the full 15 minutes, but only 1 of the 14 kids in the unreliable condition did so.

As coauthor Richard Aslin has remarked, these are dramatic differences for an experiment of this kind. Usually when researchers report they’ve found an effect, the effect is statistically significant, but rather small. Here we have a dramatic difference – and one resulting from a brief intervention.

What must things be like for children who are exposed to unreliable conditions day after day? At home or elsewhere?

As Kidd and her colleagues noted, children must be experiencing radically different views of the world depending on their home life. A child living with parents who “reliably promise and deliver small motivational treats” is going to have reason to wait for her marshmallow. But for a child “accustomed to stolen possessions and broken promises, the only guaranteed treats are the ones you’ve already swallowed.”

But it doesn’t end there.

Kidd’s experiment shows us that children adjust their strategies based on their direct experiences with adults. What about indirect experiences? Might children learn by observing how adults treat other people?

An experiment in dishonesty

Maybe kids don’t have to wait for an adult to let them down personally. To lose faith – and give up on long-term rewards – maybe it’s enough to catch the adult lying to someone else.

That was the guiding hypothesis of Laura Michaelson and Yuko Manakata. So they conducted their own marshmallow experiment on preschoolers in Colorado, this time replacing promises of art supplies and stickers with an opportunity to observe an adult behaving dishonestly towards another person (Michaelson and Manakata 2016). 

Each participating preschooler began the experiment the same way: The child was seated at a table with some modeling clay, accompanied by a friendly adult. The two of them created clay sculptures together while a second adult watched with interest.

Then, when the adult artist had completed a sculpture of a bird, she left the room for a minute. And what happened next varied by group assignment.

  • Kids randomly assigned to the trustworthy condition saw the adult observer accidentally damage the artist’s sculpture. When the artist returned and asked for an explanation, the observer confessed and apologized.
  • Kids randomly assigned to the untrustworthy condition saw the adult observer break the sculpture on purpose. Then, when the artist returned, the observer lied to the artist, saying “No, I didn’t break your bird. I don’t know how it got broken.”

Thus, half the children in this experiment witnessed an adult misbehave and lie to another person. Would these observations have an impact on their willingness to delay gratification?

To answer this question, the researchers had the adult observer administer the marshmallow test. The adult observer gave kids the standard choice: Eat one marshmallow now, or wait and receive two marshmallows later. And children’s responses depended on what they had seen the adult do earlier.

Children who’d previously seen the adult behaving honestly were much more inclined to delay gratification. They waited three times longer than the kids who’d seen the adult misbehave and tell a lie.

So preschoolers don’t merely remember and respond to our broken promises. They are also capable of observing our bad behavior toward third parties and inferring, this person can’t be trusted. I’d better cut my losses, and go for whatever immediate rewards I can secure right now.

To be sure, there are other factors. It isn’t just our personal behavior that influences a child’s willingness to wait!

Delayed gratification also appears to depend on the development of brain structures in the frontal cortex — structures that help us weigh benefits, predict outcomes, and override our impulses (Achterberg et al 2016).

And research suggests that kids vary in their willingness to wait as a function of their general outlook on humanity: Children who express more trust toward people overall tend to wait longer in delayed gratification tests (Ma et al 2018).

Then there are the effects of cultural training.

For example, consider Japan and the United States. In Japan, it’s customary for people to delay eating until all of their companions have been served. In the United States, folks are often less strict about this, and the difference is reflected in “marshmallow” type tests: Preschoolers in Japan show longer waiting times (Yanaoka et al 2022).

Yet if researchers change the nature of the prize — so that kids are asked to wait before opening a wrapped gift — the results reverse. In the United States, gift-giving is associated with special times of the year (e.g., Christmas, or a child’s birthday), so kids have lots of experience with waiting for these presents. By contrast, in Japan, gift-giving takes place throughout the year — without a tradition of waiting. Test preschoolers with wrapped gifts (instead of food) and now it’s the children from the United States that wait longer (Yanaoka et al 2022).

Are young children conscious of these cultural norms? When deciding whether to wait, do they think about what members of their group are “supposed to” do?

There’s reason to think this happens. In experiments on preschoolers in Japan and the United States, kids were more likely to show delayed gratification if they were told that members of their “in-group” preferred to wait for bigger payoffs (Doebel and Munakata 2018; Munakata et al 2020). In addition, researchers in China found that preschoolers increased their waiting times substantially when they were told that their teachers and peers would find out how long they waited (Ma et al 2020).

And does anything else motivate young children to delay gratification?

There’s this: The power of cooperation. In experiments on more than 200 children, researchers paired kids up, and told them they could only receive the larger prize if both members of the duo waited. It was a simple trick, and it worked. Children delayed gratification substantially. Moreover, the researchers tested kids in two very different societies — Germany and Kenya — and the effect was present in both places (Koomen et al 2020).

So there’s a lot going on here with delayed gratification. It requires willpower, but it isn’t determined by willpower alone. Whether or not a child chooses to wait depends a great deal on the child’s environment, too. And we adults play a crucial role in shaping that environment.

More reading

We can reinforce delayed gratification by behaving in ways that are reliable and trustworthy. What else can we do to help children develop self-control? See these evidence based tips.

In addition, for more information about the ways that adult behavior shapes children’s choices, see my article, “Punitive environments encourage children to tell lies.”

References: Delayed gratification and the marshmallow test

Achterberg M, Peper JS, van Duijvenvoorde AC, Mandl RC, Crone EA. 2016. Frontostriatal White Matter Integrity Predicts Development of Delay of Gratification: A Longitudinal Study. J Neurosci. 36(6):1954-61.

Doebel S, Michaelson LE, Munakata Y. 2020. Good Things Come to Those Who Wait: Delaying Gratification Likely Does Matter for Later Achievement (A Commentary on Watts, Duncan, & Quan, 2018). Psychol Sci. 31(1):97-99.

Doebel S and Munakata Y. 2018. Group Influences on Engaging Self-Control: Children Delay Gratification and Value It More When Their In-Group Delays and Their Out-Group Doesn’t. Psychol Sci. 29(5):738-748.

Falk A, Kosse F, and Pinger P. 2020. Re-Revisiting the Marshmallow Test: A Direct Comparison of Studies by Shoda, Mischel, and Peake (1990) and Watts, Duncan, and Quan (2018). Psychol Sci. 31(1):100-104.

Kidd C, Palmeri H, Aslin RN. 2013. Rational snacking: young children’s decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability. Cognition. 126(1):109-14.

Koomen R, Grueneisen S, Herrmann E. 2020. Children Delay Gratification for Cooperative Ends. Psychol Sci. 31(2):139-148.

Ma F, Chen B, Xu F, Lee K, Heyman GD. 2018. Generalized trust predicts young children’s willingness to delay gratification. J Exp Child Psychol. 169:118-125.

Ma F, Zeng D, Xu F, Compton BJ, Heyman GD. 2020.  Delay of Gratification as Reputation Management. Psychol Sci. 31(9):1174-1182.

Michaelson LE and Munakata Y. 2016. Trust matters: Seeing how an adult treats another person influences preschoolers’ willingness to delay gratification. Dev Sci. 19(6):1011-1019.

Munakata Y, Yanaoka K, Doebel S, Guild RM, Michaelson LE, and Saito S. 2020. Group Influences on Children’s Delay of Gratification: Testing the Roles of Culture and Personal Connections. Collabra: Psychology, 6(1).

Schlam TR, Wilson NL, Shoda Y, Mischel W, and Ayduk O. 2013. Preschoolers’ delay of gratification predicts their body mass 30 years later. J Pediatr. 162(1):90-3.

Shoda Y, Mischel W, and Peake PK. 1990. Predicting adolescent cognitive and self-regulatory competencies from preschool delay of gratification: Identifying diagnostic conditions. Developmental Psychology 26: 978–986.

Watts TW and Duncan GJ. 2020. Controlling, Confounding, and Construct Clarity: Responding to Criticisms of “Revisiting the Marshmallow Test” by Doebel, Michaelson, and Munakata (2020) and Falk, Kosse, and Pinger (2020). Psychol Sci. 31(1):105-108.

Watts TW, Duncan GJ, and Quan H. Revisiting the Marshmallow Test: A Conceptual Replication Investigating Links Between Early Delay of Gratification and Later Outcomes. Psychol Sci. 29(7):1159-1177.

Yanaoka K, Michaelson LE, Guild RM, Dostart G, Yonehiro J, Saito S, Munakata Y. 2022. Cultures Crossing: The Power of Habit in Delaying Gratification. Psychol Sci. 33(7):1172-1181.

Portions of the text appeared in a previous version of this article for Parenting Science, as well as a publication, “Kids fail the marshmallow test when adults are unreliable,” written by the same author for BabyCenter in 2012.

content last modified 5/2023

image of young boy staring at marshmallow by Josie Garner / istock

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