Gen Z and Millennials Are Better Than Their Parents at Delaying Gratification

"A supposed modern culture of instant gratification has not stemmed the march of improvement."


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New research provides more evidence that despite all the doomsaying about the post-millennial generation, "Gen Z" is doing just fine—perhaps even better than its predecessors. John Protzko, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, analyzed 50 years of data on the famous "marshmallow test," which ostensibly measures children's ability to delay gratification. Protzko found that from the 1960s to this year, American kids have gotten steadily better at waiting to get what they want.

In the marshmallow test, a child is left alone in the test room with a marshmallow or some other edible treat. Subjects are told that they can eat the treat now, but also that if they wait a few minutes until the researcher returns they'll get a second treat too. Researchers measure not only whether a child eats the treat before the researcher returns but, if so, how long he or she waits before doing so.

When Protzko asked cognitive development scholars whether they believed children's ability to delay gratification had been diminished over the past half century, 52 percent predicted a decrease and 20 percent predicted no change. Only 16 percent expected kids' capacity to delay gratification to have improved. Many cited modern children's use of computers, phones, tablets, and similar technologies as a reason for the expected decline.

But such concerns "may be overblown," according to the (pre-publication) paper. "Overall, contrary to not only popular wisdom, but also expert prediction, kids these days are better at delaying gratification on the marshmallow test—and they are getting better," the researchers found.

For Protzko's analysis, researches looked at the results of marshmallow tests in both published and unpublished research from the past 50 years. All the children who participated were under the age of 10. The increase in the ability to delay gratification held true "for all children, not [just] those at the bottom of ability…for those at the top of the ability."

The length of time kids were able to resist the marshmallow increased an average of six seconds per year, or around a minute per decade. "This is a little less than a fifth of a standard deviation per decade," the authors note, which "corresponds to the fifth of a standard deviation per decade observed in increases in IQ"—otherwise known as the Flynn Effect.

As Reason's Ron Bailey pointed out in 2011, years of research on the effect, first identified by James R. Flynn in the 1980s, showed that IQ scores have been rising among both the lowest and highest scorers. Much of the explanation for "this dramatic across the board increase in intelligence" can be attributed to television. (For more on the why behind the Flynn Effect, see this Michael Shermer piece from Reason's archives.) Perhaps digital culture is having similarly positive effects.

"While it is easy to look at kids these days and deride their inability to control themselves and decry the downfall of civilization, it is much harder to accurately recall our own selves as children," Protzko's paper points out. But "contrary to historical and present complaints, kids these days appear to be better than we were. A supposed modern culture of instant gratification has not stemmed the march of improvement."