Dr. Walter Mischel, and his team sat children down at a table and placed a marshmallow (or other treat chosen by the child) in front of them. The researchers offered the children two options: a smaller reward (one marshmallow) now or a larger reward (two marshmallows) later if they can wait. The experimenters then left the room, leaving the child alone with the marshmallows. As expected, some children popped the treat in their mouth as soon as the researcher left. Some were able to wait for a small amount of time before caving in. Others were able to hold out for periods of up to fifteen minutes for the researcher to return so they can have the larger reward. This ability to have greater self-control, to resist temptation and delay immediate gratification in pursuit of a more valuable reward or a long-term goal – in other words, executive function (EF) skills – is predictive of a number of developmental outcomes, including peer relations, health, social-emotional coping skills, wealth, public safety (i.e. criminal convictions), social responsibility, academic competence, and career achievement.

Cohort Effects on Delay of Gratification

Researchers in this experiment were interested in whether children in today’s world would fare as well as children did in the original “Marshmallow Test” of the late 1960s. The common belief was that children now would be unable to wait as long as they did back in the day, preferring the immediate reward. The idea was that many children now have access to a range of technologies that may serve as instant entertainment, thus acting as immediate gratification. Some would argue that technology might make it harder for children to remain focused on less immediately rewarding, or “dull” tasks like homework or chores. On the other hand, with new technology comes new ways of thinking. It may be the case that children growing up in this faster-paced world have more opportunity to exercise attention-control skills, contributing to increases in reasoning and symbolic thinking, which have been found to correlate with gains in IQ. Additionally, children now have greater access to high-quality preschool education than they did fifty years ago. To investigate these issues, Dr. Stephanie Carlson, Reflection Sciences, Inc. Co-founder and Chief Science Officer, and her colleagues analyzed delay of gratification data collected in the 1960s, the 1980s, and the first decade of the 2000s.

Delay of Gratification: The Results

Contrary to the widely held belief that children in today’s world have less self-control than those who grew up in the 1960s or 1980s, results showed that children are becoming more successful at delaying gratification on the Marshmallow Test – the 2000s children were able to wait on average two minutes longer than children from the 1960s and one minute longer than those in the 1980s.

How can this be?

Researchers first ruled out the possibility that these effects were due to methodology, setting, geography, sampling variation, age, or sex of the children. They next considered the following possibilities: Though further research is needed, experts speculate that improvements in abstract thought, reasoning, and social awareness of EF skills in schools, media, and parenting, along with increases in preschool enrollment, may have been the driving force in generational improvements in wait time and delay of gratification." />

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Cohort Effects on Delay of Gratification

The Marshmallow Test is conceivably one of the most prominent developmental research studies on delay of gratification. In the late 1960s to early 70s, American Psychologist and Stanford University Professor, Dr. Walter Mischel, and his team sat children down at a table and placed a marshmallow (or other treat chosen by the child) in front of…

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National Effort: Improve Student Outcomes

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) are teaming up in a national effort: improve student outcomes through research and development. Yesterday (May 8, 2018), the two nonprofits announced that they are extending a public Request for Information (RFI) about innovative ways to facilitate, accelerate, and improve the academic and non-academic outcomes that…

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Imagination and Brain Development

“Executive function refers to the brain skills that allow us to control our thoughts, actions, and emotions. These skills include cognitive flexibility (thinking about something in multiple ways and shifting gears, for example, transitioning smoothly from snack time to center time), working memory (holding information in mind and working with it, such as reminding yourself…

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Mindfulness, Reflection, and Executive Function

Earlier this week, Frontiers in Psychology published an article on mindfulness, reflection, and executive function. The study, “Mindfulness Plus Reflection Training: Effects on Executive Function in Early Childhood” was conducted by Dr. Phil Zelazo, Dr. Ann Masten, and Dr. Stephanie Carlson of the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Child Development and Jessie Forston of Learning Tree Yoga,…

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Executive Function Skills & Math

Executive function skills are important for regulating behaviors, as well as academic success, including math achievement. This relation between executive function skills and math is not surprising when considering the cognitive skills involved in solving mathematical problems. For instance, if you ask 5-year-old Lola to figure out, “How many pets are three cats and four…

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Part II: Executive Function Interventions

We know that executive function skills are important, but how can parents and teachers use executive function interventions such as reflection training, mindfulness, and scaffolding, to promote healthy development? In this second episode of Full Prefrontal,  Sucheta Kamath and Dr. Phil Zelazo discuss interventions ideas for parents, teachers, and caregivers to build successful members of society. Listen to the…

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Part I: Executive Function: The Power to Resist

Executive function skills are important for a number of processes, but did you know that these skills also play a huge role in the power to resist temptations? Full Prefrontal is a podcast series led by Sucheta Kamath, Founder of Cerebral Matters and expert in brain training and executive function development. Sucheta and her guests,…

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Literacy: What does Executive Function have to do with it?

How many times have you read or written something in the past 24 hours? Reading and writing are key skills that we use on a daily basis. In school, in the workplace, and at home, reading serves as a vital tool for acquiring new information. Reading is especially important between 3rd and 4th grade, as…

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St. Paul Schools Try Mixing Work and Play

Twenty-seven St. Paul Public elementary schools are blurring the lines between school work and play with a homegrown curriculum called “Discovering Our World.” Kids get around 90 minutes each day to play — or “actively learn” — at any of several stations stocked with blocks, modeling clay and art, or pretend cooking supplies. Stephanie Carlson,…