In these days of ubiquitous technology, in which we can retrieve information at the click of a button, you'd think that children would be less inclined to wait for a reward.
However, a new study published by the American Psychological Association defies this notion.
Lead author Stephanie M. Carlson, PhD, who's a psychologist from the University of Minnesota, joined her colleagues in analysing replications of the famed 'marshmallow test', with interesting results.
For those of you unfamiliar with the marshmallow test, it was originally part of a study coming out of Stanford University in the 1960s.
The researchers conducted experiments in which kids aged three to five were told they could eat one treat immediately - a marshmallow, pretzel, or cookie, for example - or wait for a larger treat.
The children were then left alone in the room and the team observed through a one-way mirror how long they waited. In the '60s, most of the preschoolers ate the single treat rather than waiting for an additional treat.
Now, Carlson and her team looked at replications of this study carried out in the 1980s and early 2000s in comparison to the original test from 50 years ago, Science Daily reports.
Surprisingly, children in the 2000s could wait a full two minutes longer (over a 10 minute period) than their counterparts in the 1960s. The naughties kids could also wait one minute longer than those in the 1980s.
This defies expectations found in an online survey Carlson and her colleagues conducted. Out of 358 US adults, 72 percent thought that children today wouldn't wait as long as those in the 1960s.
75 percent said they thought kids nowadays would exhibit less self-control than those in the 1960s.
"Our findings serve as an example of how our intuition can be wrong and how it's important to do research," co-author Yuichi Shoda, PhD, of the University of Washington, said of this gap between expectations and results.
Carlson noted that kids' ability to wait did not appear to 'be due to any change in methodology, setting or geography, or the age, sex or socioeconomic status of the children'.
The researchers also ensured that none of the children in the 2000s dataset was on medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder during the study.
This ability to wait has larger implications than just getting another treat. Delaying gratification in early childhood is linked to positive outcomes such as greater academic competence, healthier weight, effective coping with stress, positive relationships with peers, and social responsibility.
But what could cause this great leap in the ability to delay gratification in the last 50 years? The team offered a few explanations for this change, including an increased focus on early education.
Only 15.7 percent of three- and four-year-olds in the US went to preschool in 1968, compared to more than 50 percent by 2000. As well, rather than preschool being a place for children to simply be cared for, in the States these institutions became more about school readiness starting in the 1980s.
The researchers also suggested that the significant increase in IQ scores in recent decades may account for increased ability to delay gratification, as this rise in scores is linked with globalisation, economic changes, and rapidly changing technology.
Digital technology is linked to increased abstract thought, which could contribute to ability to delay gratification.
One of the co-authors, Walter Mischel of Columbia University, noted that 'while the results indicate that the sampled children's ability to delay is not diminished on the marshmallow test, the findings do not speak to their willingness to delay gratification when faced with the proliferation of temptations now available in everyday life'.