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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."

LJM Photo/NewscomLJM Photo/NewscomNew 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For Protzko's analysis, researches looked at the results of marshmallow tests in both published and unpublished research from the past 50 years.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."

Photo Credit: LJM Photo/Newscom

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    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.

    No wonder our country's youth have an obesity problem. WHAT ARE THESE RESEARCHERS THINKING?

  • Chipper Morning Truthjammer||

    Actually, all this study shows is that Gen Z kids don't know what a marshmallow is. The only use for marshmallows is for s'mores, and you need to go outside for that, put down your phone, and start a fire. Other than that, who ever eats marshmallows?

    If you want to check delayed gratification, see how long kids can resist checking their social media updates.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    I used to set marshmellows on fire with a lighter. Wait a few second blow it out and eat it. I also just eat them straight but I know that's weird to people.

  • Chipper Morning Truthjammer||

    This is way worse than your midget pubic hair fetish.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    It's not a fetish as much as an appreciation of beauty in the world. Sorry your generation missed out on that too.

  • Jimbo||

    What is this, a remake of Sleeper?
    "Much of the explanation for "this dramatic across the board increase in intelligence" can be attributed to television."

  • damikesc||

    Almost makes up for those same groups refusing to get their own places to live until well in their 30's....

    They will eat a marshmallow less quickly. Grand. That is evidence there, kids.

  • ||

    You can have a marshmallow now or move out and get a job and have all the marshmallows you want.

  • Leo Kovalensky||

    Let me be the first to say, stay off my lawn with your damn marshmallows.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    American kids have gotten steadily better at waiting to get what they want.

    That's good. Maybe they won't think it's such a big deal when they have to wait a month to see a doctor.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    WTF. Free healthcare is bae, grandpa creeper.

  • ||

    Maybe they won't think it's such a big deal when they have to wait...

    for a return on Social Security.
    for a resolution to the War in Afghanistan and the Global War on Terror.
    for Venezuela to get socialism *juuust* right.
    for the libertarian moment to finally arrive.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    So you're saying my parents masturbated more than I do?

    My God.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Or maybe you're just better at making it last longer?

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Edging ftw.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    They should be teaching that in Sex Ed. Seriously.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    They would if there were private sector sex classes. You could teach a class in edging, and I could teach one titled, "lube that little mug up or you'll end up with a brown stalk of broccoli."

  • Brandybuck||

    Inquiring minds want to know: Aloe Vera or intensive care?

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Tears of loneliness.

  • Chipper Morning Truthjammer||

    Tears are the best lubricant. It is known.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Certainly better than Shampoo, which is basically a dark trap for poor young boys unwise to the horrors of the world.

  • EscherEnigma||

    Seriously, that's what the conditioner is for.

  • Chipper Morning Truthjammer||

    But is it because of the battle between the urge to climax and self-disgust at pushing the boundaries of Rule 34, or because of an insatiable enthusiasm for relentless self-teasing?

  • Hugh Akston||

    It's mostly because his nerve endings are so ennured by chronic repetitive stimulation that they no longer respond to the combination of lemon juice and low voltage electricity as they once did.

  • lap83||

    "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,"

    Next time maybe try taking away their iPads during the test, then we'll talk

  • Crusty Juggler||

    You are them!!!!

  • lap83||

    Nuh uh, I'm part of a new generation. Generation Yme? We're defined by our exasperation with all of the other generations. Join us.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    I can't even w u rn.

  • EscherEnigma||

    We're defined by our exasperation with all of the other generations.
    I think that's every generation. Back to the beginning of humankind.

  • lap83||

    except none of the other generations know about us so we escape their scrutiny, it's a pretty sweet deal

  • Headache||

    Is that somewhere between Windows 95 and Windows XP

  • Crusty Juggler||

    I'm in the mood for s'mores, but I think I'll wait until the weekend to have some.

  • lap83||

    Two days for the social media and kickstarter campaign to build a following and fund your s'mores ingredient purchase? Spoken like a true Millenial

  • Rhywun||

    a marshmallow or some other edible treat

    Maybe kids are pickier eaters now. Or maybe they're using crunchy peanut butter or Mary Janes or Circus Peanuts or some other disgusting food today.

  • ||

    Considering the obesity epidemic it seems exceedingly likely that they just ate.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Crunchy peanut butter is the preferred nut butter of the non-snowflake; you probably prefer a smooth almond butter, don't you?

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    If you want peanuts, get peanuts. If you want a peanut butter sandwich, GTFO with your peanuts.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    This is why your generation couldn't win the Vietnam war.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    This is why my generation made the Internet what it is today.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    So your generation is responsible for the spread of ISIS?

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    This means your generation is responsible for unleashing Hihn on the world.

  • LarryA||

    Many cited modern children's use of computers, phones, tablets, and similar technologies as a reason for the expected decline.

    Obviously these researchers aren't considering the enforced delayed gratification built into programs like Windows 10. Back in the day, when you flicked a switch things came on. Now everything has to boot up. Even the new light bulbs hesitate.

    52 percent predicted a decrease

    Which says something about the level of expertise among "cognitive development" experts.

  • Headache||

    You hit that joint anytime you want, but if you wait for the researcher to return, you can get some smack.

  • EscherEnigma||

    I hope ENB dropped a link to this article in the mailbox of Lenore Skenazy & Jonathan Haidt.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    Btw, the Fluffernutter is a top 5 all-time sandwich.

  • lap83||

    I've never had or wanted one. It sounds like a horrible sex position

  • Crusty Juggler||

    You'd think it was a middle-American classic.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Now here's where we're going to have to diverge in opinion. Though it does place the region you lived in. Once I moved from the NE I noticed no one had ever heard of that disgusting glob of a sandwich.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    I'm part of the coastal elite and I know of it.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    That's what I mean. NE was North East, not Nebraska. When I moved from Mass to the west people weren't often familiar with it.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Also they probably shunned and punched you because of your accent.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Nah, I avoided that. I have slight Arizona accent at this point.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Arizona accent deserves closed fist.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    They're too busy with their tator tot hot dishes and mayonnaise sandwiches.

  • lap83||

    what is Mayonnaise? Is that like Miracle Whip?

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    It's the worse version of Miracle Whip.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    It's the worse version of Miracle Whip.

    Miracle Whip is what happens when you start to make salad dressing, decide you need to masturbate, shoot your load into the half-made salad dressing, then put a lid on it and call it a day.

  • Rhywun||

    Don't forget the 4 cups of sugar.

  • Crusty Juggler||

    It's what binds together the many casseroles you enjoy.

  • lap83||

    They hated you because you were the type of person who verbalizes abbreviations. They were just too polite to let you know

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    That politeness and kindness is why I love the people of Arizona. In Massachusetts they showed me neither.

  • $park¥ leftist poser||

    Massachusetts prides itself on being tolerant. There's no place for kindness or politeness in such a place.

  • Brandybuck||

    Fluffernutter is what happens after you let twelve generations of Massachusetts puritans inbreed.

  • EscherEnigma||

    ... Is that a PB & Fluff sandwich? I've never heard it called the "fluffernutter". Also, when I tried to make my own, I discovered new found respect for those lunch ladies. I don't know how they spread the fluff so evenly without ripping the bread.

  • Headache||

    They kept the knife up their fat ass to keep it warm. So the fluff would spread nicely.

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    Turns out kids can resist eating bugs longer than our ape ancestors as well. Evolution baby!

  • Brandybuck||

    Does not surprise me. As a late boomer, I can safely declare that boomers have little sense of delayed gratification. Their parents lavished them with all the attention they could afford. The modern university system was essentially constructed for boomers. The whole point of ObamaCare was to force young healthy kids into plans to lower the premiums for boomers.

    The boomers grew up in the greatest economic boom of history. Leaving WWII, the US found itself being the only industrialized nation with an intact industry, and the boomers coasted that wave through the fifties and sixties, and barely noticed the economic blip of the 70s, came into political power in the 80s and demanded that nothing change.

    Today, boomers whine at the prospect of means testing Social Security and Medicare, because they are just now retiring. It's why the boomer heavy Tea Party demanded hands off their Medicare. Not because they didn't realize it was socialized medicine, it was THEIR socialized medicine. It's why the boomer DNC was so upset at the BernieBros millennials. They weren't against gub'ment handouts, they just wanted the handouts to got THEM.

    Not that it's all bad. Whenever I get depressed about my future prospects, I remember that I'm a late boomer, and the government isn't going to let boomers drop through the Social Security or Medicare cracks. The gen z and millennials may have their turnips bled dry, but at least I'll get mine. Screw everyone else after I'm dead...

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Excellent, then may we never see another millennial-written editorial whinging about why they're not yet earning 6 figures 3 months out of college with a fresh bachelors in photography and print making.

  • EscherEnigma||

    Only if we can similarly expect no more Boomer-written articles about how Millenials aren't buying houses, cars, motorcycles and napkins like they're supposed to.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    That's a deal. Boomers can kiss my ass. I'm from Generation keep-your-head-down-and-shut-the-fuck-up.

  • Joao||

    Russian kids learned more patience in the bread lines, I'm sure.

    But seriously, where's my flying car? Government stagnation has made a permanent status quo. Kids nowadays say "why would you want a flying car?"

    Sorry, just came back from a day selling ads to small businesses that say prospective "help" are addicted to opioids or their phones. That's real world.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Selling ads, you say? Whatever you say, Ivan.

  • Bra Ket||

    Alternative explanation: when your blood sugar is sky high you have less craving for sweets.

  • RockLibertyWarrior||

    Pfffftt. Some study with Marshmallows in a controlled lab environment proves that millennials can delay gratification better than their forbears. Whatever, I see millennnials on a daily basis out in public, where I work etc. and I can tell you they can't delay gratification, in fact, if you take away their stupid fucking phones they'd have withdrawals like a ex junkie. "Reason" has to get used to the fact that millennials for the most part aren't FUCKING LIBERTARIANS, their fucking Bernie supporting, free loading, whining jerk offs. There is some exceptions but quit running after false hope, this current generation doesn't want to downsize government in any way. Their the most conformist generation since the post World War Two kids. You should try to convince them but don't hold out any hope. These "studies" are a joke, studies don't beat real world experience and the words out of uneducated, brainwashed mouths.

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    There not conformist. They all get tattoos and piercings, which proves every last one of them is a rebel.

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    ""where I work etc. and I can tell you they can't delay gratification, in fact, if you take away their stupid fucking phones they'd have withdrawals like a ex junkie. "'

    Yep, replace marshmallows with a smart phone and I bet the outcomes will change.

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