• Shawn Wilson, Ph.D.

The 'Kids These Days' Phenomenon: Children's Self-Control Improving Across Generations

People in the media often decry that children in modern times have the worst ability to delay gratification in a culture where news is constantly changing and electronics allow for instant access to a variety of entertainment. People tweet without thinking and post social media pictures of 'private' moments. Children are seen as being addicted to televisions and iPads and cell phones. The common theme appears to be that we have lost our ability to engage in self-control.

One of the most classic experiments of self-control is Walter Mischel's Marshmallow Test. You might have seen the cute videos of it where children are told that if they can wait and not eat the marshmallow (or similar goody), then they will receive two marshmallows.

The experiment is a test of whether children can delay instant gratification or reward in order to receive a better reward later. The marshmallow test has been studied in many different contexts. Generally, the children who have been able to delay their gratification have better outcomes many years later in terms of education attainment, body mass index, and other outcomes.

There have been multiple criticisms of the marshmallow test and researchers have shown that one can manipulate the results depending on environmental factors. For example, if the children had reason to believe the experimenters were unreliable and accordingly may not have later provided a second treat, then children were much less likely to delay their gratification.

As reported by the British Psychological Society, a study was recently conducted that looked at all of the research on the marshmallow test for the past 50 years. What the main researcher, John Protzko, found was that children's ability to delay gratification had actually increased over the 50 years. That is, children of current generations generally had a better ability to delay gratification compared to children of previous generations.

Now this may surprise you, and it certainly surprised researchers. Protzko polled researchers interested in cognitive developmental psychology (i.e., the experts in this field) and found that only 16 per cent of those polled thought that children nowadays would have better self-control compared to children in the past. Of these experts, 50 per cent thought that self-control would worsen and 20 per cent stated that there would be no change.

Protzko calls this the 'kids these days' phenomenon where people have a hard time accurately describing their own experiences as a child and often lament the shortcomings of children in the current generation. We can probably all think back to a time we have made similar judgments and indicates we should monitor our own judgments as they may not be accurate.

Now it is unclear whether this small increase in self-control nowadays will result in any meaningful changes in other outcomes. Indeed, because the marshmallow test can easily be manipulated by environmental factors, it is not clear if some external factors are at play here to explain the increase in self-control.

Regardless, it is an interesting body of research and the concept of the 'kids these days' phenomenon does make sense. Hopefully additional research will highlight other times when we make inaccurate judgments about others.

Article link: https://digest.bps.org.uk/2017/09/20/children-of-today-are-better-at-delaying-gratification-than-previous-generations/

The Clinically Relevant Insights Blog, part of ShawnWilsonPhD.com, shares news and research regarding psychology and wellness.

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© 2020 by Shawn Wilson