Delay of gratification is a complex decision-making behavior that is influenced by many contextual variables, such as cultural values, prior experience, and social trust. Research has shown that children's delay behaviors are sensitive to these variables, which can explain seemingly irrational behavior. It also suggests that immediate consumption does not always indicate poor impulse control. However, previous studies have examined only group differences, which neglect important individual differences in the ability to modify delay behavior. In two studies, we examined children's ability to adapt their delay and saving behavior according to the context and recent experience. It was predicted that children's ability to switch their behavior would be related to greater executive function. In Study 1 (N = 140), 3.5- and 4.5-year-old children were categorized as delayers or non-delayers based on a baseline delay choice task. In a second administration of the task, a risk of losing treats was associated with children's preferred choice (i.e., delaying or not delaying), encouraging children to switch their behavior. Children were again categorized as delayers or non-delayers. In Study 2 (N = 142), 3.5- and 4.5-year-old children were categorized as savers or spenders based on a baseline saving task where children could save marbles from a small marbles game for a later big marbles game. Children were then unable to play with the big game either because they had no marbles or because the big game was unexpectedly broken. In a second administration, children were again categorized as savers or spenders. In both studies, children who changed categorization across the two administrations, indicating a switch in behavior (e.g., delayer to non-delayer, spender to saver) scored higher on a measure of set-shifting. The results demonstrate that children can use the context and past experience to successfully adapt their delay and saving behaviors, and that executive function skills may be important in facilitating flexibility in these behaviors.
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. May 2014. Major: Child Psychology. Advisors: Dr. Ann S. Masten, Stephanie M. Carlson. 1 computer file (PDF); vii, 96 pages.
Lee, Wendy S.C..
Individual differences in flexibility of delay and saving behavior: relations to executive function.
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