Trust in adults affects children’s willingness to delay gratification

One marshmallow now, or two later? For children, the decision may partially depend on social trust.

A child’s perception of an adult’s trustworthiness can affect his or her willingness to resist a small, immediately available reward in order to obtain a larger reward later, a new University of Colorado Boulder study has discovered.

The findings, which were recently published in the journal Developmental Science, indicate that preschoolers who observe an adult behaving in an untrustworthy manner give up on waiting for a delayed reward at a rate that is nearly three times that of preschoolers who observe an adult behaving in a trustworthy manner.

The experiment highlights the importance of social trust in a child’s willingness or unwillingness to delay gratification, an ability that previous studies have linked to better life outcomes such as higher SAT scores and lower rates of obesity.

“It doesn’t make sense for kids to delay gratification if they don’t trust that they’re actually going to get the reward they’re expecting in the future,” said Laura Michaelson, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at CU-Boulder and the lead author of the new study. “We wanted to explore how trust might contribute to that.”

The researchers recruited 34 children between the ages of 3 and 6 years old with parental consent. The children were randomly assigned to one of two groups in which they observed an adult interact with another person in either a trustworthy or an untrustworthy manner.

In the “untrustworthy” group, the adult in the room lied to the other person in an obvious fashion, allowing the children to witness the dishonest behavior.  In the “trustworthy” group, the adult behaved honestly toward the other person.

Then, children were seated at a table and provided with a single marshmallow.  The adult told children that they could eat the marshmallow right away if they liked, but if they waited while she went to do something in another room, they could have two marshmallows once she returned.

All children preferred to wait for two marshmallows.  However, the children who had observed the lying adult waited less time overall, and were far less likely to hold out for the second marshmallow, choosing to eat the first marshmallow before the 15-minute period elapsed.  By contrast, children who observed the honest behavior waited more time overall and obtained the second marshmallow far more often.

“Kids are very tuned in to truth and honesty,” said Michaelson. “They have an acute sense of fairness and lying. It’s striking that children simply observing one adult’s interaction with another can have such strong implications for their trust in that adult going forward.”

The study implies that children who opt for an instant reward over future ones may not always be acting impulsively or irrationally, but rather may do so because they have observed something that makes them distrustful of the person promising the reward.

Future research in this area may examine whether or not promoting greater social trust can increase the ability to delay gratification in certain groups (such as drug addicts) who tend not to be good at doing so.

The study was co-authored by Yuko Munakata, a professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at CU-Boulder. The National Institute of Mental Health provided support for the research.

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