What's interesting is Mischel and colleagues followed up with the same preschoolers as adults 20 and 30 years later. The findings from those studies were remarkable. On average, the adults who delayed their gratification as preschoolers did better academically, socially, and personally, and they had lower body mass index scores compared to the group of adults who were not able to delay their gratification as preschoolers (2,3,4).
Another one of those psychological studies where maybe the findings are not that surprising, maybe even expected. So what do these studies have to do with smart technology that is the norm of today?
The purpose of Mischel's studies centered on the ability of a child to delay gratification, in essence, to tolerate frustration. Although the follow-up studies were correlational, the studies linked the ability to delay gratification (i.e., tolerate frustration) to later success in a number of life domains.
A few weeks ago, my kids (ages 4 and 2) were watching a children's show on Youtube. During the episode, an ad spontaneously popped up and my kids were confused and ultimately frustrated by the commercial. Naturally I went to fix this tragedy and closed the ad. The kids settled down, and all was good. Being a psychologist, I could not help but be curious about the reaction my children had because of this momentary disruption in their show.
As they were watching their show, I reflected on my childhood when cell phones, texting, Youtube, Spotify, Apple products, and any number of things that make life so incredibly efficient did not exist. We didn't even have call waiting (if anyone remembers what that is). Twenty years ago, if you wanted to spend time with a friend after school you either made plans at school, called and hopefully they answered, or you walked around the neighborhood in hopes of finding them. Now you have 5 or more “smart” ways to contact your friend immediately with the advent of social media.
When I would read a book and not know the meaning of a word, my parents would always say to me, “Look it up in the dictionary,” which was frustrating but I did it. Now, you can ask your phone and you'll know the definition in seconds. When a favorite song came on the radio, I knew I'd have to wait hours or even days to hear the song again. Now, you can listen to any song at any time within the matter of seconds.
Smart technology has done something that is exclusively thought of as a good thing, it's eliminated the process of waiting. It's minimized frustration and expedited gratification. Maybe that's not the best thing, or even a good thing.
Waiting for a friend to call back, listening to the radio for that one song, looking up a word in the dictionary, or even watching a commercial. These are all exercises in delaying gratification and tolerating frustration. These are all staring at a marshmallow and not eating it.
Are we teaching our kids to seek gratification immediately? To get rid of feeling frustrated as quickly as possible? Might the loss of being able to delay gratification and tolerate frustration explain the rise in childhood obesity and use of psychotropic medication for children?
So now when that frustrating commercial pops up during your kids' or your favorite show, it might be worthwhile to say, “Hmmm, that's frustrating. But you know what, it's okay because this commercial will be over soon.” A statement like that just might change someone's future.
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Salmaan Toor is a licensed clinical psychologist practicing in Knoxville, TN. If you are interested in being notified of future posts, you can “like” The Family Center of Knoxville on facebook here or can follow me on Twitter here. Thanks for your support!
1. Mischel, W., Ebbesen, E. & Zeiss, A. (1972). Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 21 (2): 204-218.
2. Mischel, W., Shoda, Y. & Rodriguzez, M. (1989). Delay of gratification in children. Science, 244: 933- 938.
3. Schlam, N., Shoda, Y, Mischel, W. & Ayduk, O. (2013). Preschoolers' delay of gratification predicts their body mass 30 years later. The Journal of Pediatrics, 162: 90-93.
4. Shoda, Y., Mischel, W. & Peake, Philip. (1990). Predicting Adolescent Cognitivie and Self-Regulatory Competencies from Preschool Delay of Gratification: Identifying Diagnostic Conditions. Developmental Psychology, 26: 978-986.