Baby-boomers and Generation X love to tell everyone that comes after them, Millennials and Gen Z, that youngsters today are spoiled, have no patience, and want instant gratification. However, psychological studies will tell you that the opposite is true.
Researchers have recreated the famous “Stanford marshmallow experiment” in a study published in Developmental Psychology. In this experiment, children between the ages of three and five are offered the option of one of two rewards – either a small one immediately or two small ones when the tester comes back into the room after a short time. 2000s children waited on average two minutes longer (over a 10-minute period) than kids in the 1960s and one minute longer than kids in the 1980s.
“Our study suggests that today’s kids can delay gratification longer than children in the 1960s and 1980s,” lead author Dr Stephanie M. Carlson, from the University of Minnesota, said in a statement. “This finding stands in stark contrast with the assumption by adults that today’s children have less self-control than previous generations.”
The idea that the generation that follows us has it easier is deeply ingrained in society, although we know it's not true. Dr Carlson and her team interviewed 358 adults on how they expected 2000s children to do compared to kids in the 1960s. About 72 percent said that 2000s kids would wait for a shorter amount of time and 75 percent thought that children today have less self-control.
"Our findings serve as an example of how our intuition can be wrong and how it’s important to do research,” added co-author Dr Yuichi Shoda, from the University of Washington. “If we hadn't been systematically collecting data on how long children wait in this type of experiment, and if we hadn't analyzed the data, we would not have found these changes. They pose an interesting and important question for future research to understand: What is causing the change, and what are the mechanisms through which these changes occur?"
The team made sure that the results in the experiments were not due to changes in methodology or settings, and that they were not influenced by age, sex, or socioeconomic status.
While the researchers don't have a final answer for the change, they have a few ideas to explain it. More children are now enrolled in pre-school, which could play a role in developing greater self-control. The often maligned technology nowadays might also have an affect. Digital tech requires a certain ability for abstraction that could make the concept of delayed gratification more palatable. This is a heartening finding, as the ability to wait for longer in these tests is associated with better life outcomes.