Social Trust is Essential to Delay Gratification
Preschoolers are remarkable for knowing when to “flex their muscles” as shown in the famous Marshmallow Study in the 1960’s where preschoolers had to decide whether to eat a marshmallow immediately, or wait fifteen minutes to get yet another marshmallow. In follow up studies, the four year olds who resisted eating the marshmallow were found to have increased SAT scores and lead healthier, more successful lives than their counterparts who lacked willpower. For years scientists believed that self control was a predetermined trait that remained stable throughout a lifetime, and that trait was evident as young as preschool age. In a counterargument, a 2012 Rochester study found the reason children lack self control is not because of lack of a unitary trait needed to succeed, but because of lack of trust in the outcome of waiting. In fact, there are many justified reasons for a child to gobble down the first marshmallow, and unfortunately those reasons could be linked with poverty and absent fathers. Recent studies have shown that children make rational choices depending on whether they live in reliable environments that encourages trust, or unreliable environments where trust is challenged on a regular basis.
The Marshmallow Study by Stanford Professor Walter Mischel demonstrated that when preschool children were able to delay gratification by waiting to eat a treat, they grew up to be more successful adults than those children who did not have that level of self control. In this study, done in the 1960’s, Mischel gave the children a treat (a marshmallow, a cookie, a pretzel) and told the children that if they could wait 15 minutes to eat it, they would get an extra treat. After following the children to adulthood, researchers discovered that those children who demonstrated self control were healthier, had more success, and better grades than those children who immediately ate the treat. Psychologists and social scientists realized that emotional intelligence and self control were more important to life success than IQ intelligence. Social scientists believed that self control was a unitary trait, evident as early as preschool. However, the children studied were a homogenous group, with none of the children coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. The children were exposed to reliable environments where they knew the adults conducting the experiment, and they had trust that the reward was forthcoming if they were patient enough to wait.
Self control is dependent on trust in receiving a future reward. A recent study by Celeste Kidd of the University of Rochester supports this argument. In her study, she found that trust and confidence in the results of waiting to receive the reward plays a significant role in a person’s ability to delay gratification. The children tested were able to make rational decisions on the probability of reward based on trust. Celeste Kidd was able to manipulate the degree of delayed gratification by introducing reliable and unreliable variables to their experiment. For example, the first group of children were given a box of crayons, and then stickers, and promised bigger boxes, but these boxes never came. This was the unreliable experience. The second group of children were promised the boxes and then received them. This was the reliable experience. Both groups of children were then offered the marshmallow test. The results of the study were conclusive and strong. Children who had trust in the outcome that they would receive their second treat waited four times longer – 12 minutes versus 3 minutes – than those children who were in unreliable situations. Clearly, children inherit different temperaments and show different behaviors from birth. This study demonstrates, however, that children can make rational decisions based on the environment, and that even the child with natural self restraint will eat the treat immediately if it appears unlikely that they will receive another one later. The children in the reliable environment learned that waiting for the treat works, and they had the ability to wait.
Children unlucky enough to be born into poverty, or with absent fathers, have been proven to be less successful in life because they lack the ability of delayed gratification. Simply put, these children live in unreliable environments. They almost always chose to grab what they can immediately, and not postpone gratification in the hopes of getting more. This lack of self control leads to juvenile delinquency, poor performance in school, and lack of economic opportunities. The study done by University of Rochester professors challenge the inevitability of failure by this subset of children. The study indicates that the reason the children lack self control is not because of lack of unitary trait needed to succeed, but because of the lack of trust in the outcome of waiting. The study suggests that if societal trust is established in these children, they are more likely to learn self control and thus more likely to use desirable traits such as self control to succeed in life. Self control is a situational trait that is determined through experiences and environmental impact, rather than a predetermined trait. Early interventions of at risk children (homeless, fatherless) could affect their ability to delay gratification.
A classic definition of weak cognitive self control include impulsiveness, low frustration tolerance, self-centeredness, bullying behavior and risk taking behavior. Studies indicate that when parental discipline, nurturing and monitoring are absent, children are at a greater risk for weak cognitive self control. It makes sense that parents who exhibit weak self control are those most likely to have children that exhibit weak self control. This is because proper parenting requires extensive effort, patience and consistent structure, not likely to be found in the homeless community. Studies indicate a significant link between low maternal self control and low child self control, as many of these families have absent fathers. Simply put, weak cognitive self control plus deviant opportunity equals crime and other negative social outcomes. These children are more likely to have been exposed to drugs and alcohol while in the womb which can cause brain abnormalities linked to self control deficits. In a neglected environment, children do not learn self control skills from their parents or other adults. They may be physically abused, and thus lose control over their emotions. Studies have shown that the more environmental risk factors a child experiences, the more likely the child will exhibit a lack of self control. Sleep deprivation is another problem among the poor due to many factors. Poor temperatures, hunger, crowded environments and stress can lead to sleep problems. Self control is impaired when a child does not get enough sleep.
A study by Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) shows that parents or other important adults have a major impact on whether or not a child develops good cognitive self control. The parents set ground rules, provide structure and discipline, teach consequences, and provide adequate socialization for their children. They monitor their offspring and teach right from wrong. When four conditions are present (care, monitor, recognize, and correct) children learn to avoid situations with long term negative consequences. Studies have shown that all four conditions must be present for the child to learn self-control. There is also the contention that self control is stable once the child passes the ages of 8 or 10 years of age. Good children tend to remain good, while those lacking self control continue to be worrisome to parents and teachers, and could lead to juvenile delinquency. This suggests that the window of opportunity to make a difference in a child’s life occurs in early childhood. Any teacher can identify those children at risk. For example, if a child is disruptive in the classroom in second or third grade, he would be identified as a child who requires intervention to learn self control techniques. Parents would be brought into the discussion and taught the four conditions necessary for learning self control (care, monitor, recognize and correct), and work in conjunction with the teacher to establish ground rules to put the child on a positive path.
Children with the least amount of trust (absent fathers, homeless environments) are those that score the lowest in self control and delayed gratification, strengthening my hypothesis that trust and confidence are essential elements to be successful. These children had little faith that the adults would deliver on their promises, thus they live in unreliable worlds. Instilling self control in this at-risk population would result in the ability to make rational decisions based on consequences. They would develop social bonds that could impede deviant behavior. Homeless children and young adults are presented with many opportunities for deviant behavior while faced with trying to fulfill basic needs such as food and shelter. Early intervention through parental education and societal resources could result in a much better outcome for homeless children.
Acquiring self control skills will lead to greater success in the classroom, and in life. Self control is one of the most important traits that a person can possess in order to be successful. Self regulation is defined as a cognitive skill that enables mindful, intentional and thoughtful behavior. It involves the ability to control impulses, such as not drinking alcohol the night before class. It also involves the capacity to do something because it is needed. Imagine if a student is confronted with the choice of going to a party or studying for a chemistry exam. The student knows that sacrificing time to study and do well on the exam will go far in improving the chances for good grades, while partying may be fun in the short term but will do nothing to achieve the goal to get into medical school. Flash forward to medical school, where every day including weekends is a never ending repeat of sleep, study, eat and more study. During this time, the student watches friends sleep late, go out, have fun. The student is aware, however, that the delaying gratification will result in a successful, respected career. Anything less would be a huge disappointment and the student is focused on the goal. Doctors are masters at self control and delayed gratification. They could not become physicians without possessing these traits. Athletes are also masters at delaying gratification, as they put long hours into training and work hard at keeping their bodies healthy. A person’s willingness to exhibit self control when they could enjoy immediate gratification depends on the goal they wish to achieve and whether or not there is a future reward, such as making the varsity hockey team or being accepted into medical school.
A causal relationship has been found between trust and delaying gratification. A 2013 joint study by researchers from the University of Colorado and Boston University, led by Laura Michaelson, provides the first demonstration of a causal role of social trust in delaying gratification. The researchers manipulated trust while avoiding manipulating of rewards establishing the causal relationship. The study found that participants dealing with untrustworthy characters were 33% less likely to wait a week for a reward than those participants dealing with trustworthy characters. Clearly, there is an assumption of a future reward in order to do something undesired or unwanted to get that future reward. If the trust in the outcome is non-existent, such as in the homeless community as a whole, then impulsive behavior is more likely. After all, why wait for a reward that you never received in the past? This study emphasizes the role of social trust in the ability to self control, and that delaying gratification does not occur in a social vacuum. It suggests that certain populations such as criminals, youth and homeless might struggle because of their lack of trust that reward will be delivered, and that implementing social trust may address some of the struggles.
In the article Delaying Gratification Depends on Social Trust, researchers discovered a causal role in social trust in delaying gratification. Simply put, a person has to believe that a future reward will be delivered in return for delaying gratification. If the trust is absent, such as in negative experiences and environments, then the likelihood of self control drops significantly. The fact that the Marshmallow Study demonstrates that delaying gratification at 4 years of age is a predictor of a healthier, more successful future shows the importance of instilling social trust in at risk populations at a young age. Developing social trust that would encourage them to delay gratification in order to achieve a better future.
Furthermore, James Clear’s article 40 Years of Stanford Research Found That People With This One Quality Are More Likely To Succeed supports the thesis that delaying gratification occurs when there is trust in the outcome. Children were given treats in both reliable and unreliable environments. If a child had no trust in getting that second treat, they were quick to eat the first treat. In a reliable environment, however, children were more willing to delay gratification to get that second treat. The results of the environment, negative or positive, were almost instantaneous. This proves that delaying gratification can be learned and is influenced by trust and confidence in the outcome.
James Clear cites Celeste Kidd’s research as proof that environment and trust affect a person’s ability to self control. If there is a goal to be reached, then self discipline and delayed gratification are required, and self control can be learned. The secret is to start small and deliver on it. For example, I know that going to the gym and exercising is good for my health and mental wellbeing, but it is so much easier to stay snuggled in my bed, or go out to eat with friends. So I used some of the tips I learned during my research to teach myself to delay gratification.
- Start Small. Make it so easy you can’t say no. I promised to exercise one time every week. Soon I was exercising three times a week.
- Improve Something by 1%. Every day. I do one more rep, or stay 5 minutes longer, or eat one less chicken nugget meal.
- Consistency. I mark off every day on my wall calendar with a big X and see how far I’ve come. It helps me bounce back from a bad day.
- The 2 Minute Rule. Don’t procrastinate. Spend 2 minutes on that paper, or homework, or reading that book, or eating that piece of fruit. It’s easier to finish once you get started.
The result is that I have avoided the dreaded “Freshman 15” and I feel healthier. Most importantly, I learned I had the ability to self control, which reinforces my position that self control can be learned and applied. Obviously, I had trust that the outcome would be a healthier, happier me.
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“Ability to Delay Gratification May Be Linked to Social Trust, New CU-Boulder Study Finds.” News Center. N.p., 04 Sept. 2013. Web. 04 Dec. 2015.