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Predicting Adolescent Cognitive and Self-Regulatory Competencies From Preschool Delay of Gratification

Predicting Adolescent Cognitive and Self-Regulatory Competencies From Preschool Delay of Gratification

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Developmental Psychology1990, Vol. 26, No. 6, 978-986Copyright 1990 by the American Psychological Association, Inc.0012-1649/90/$00.75
Predicting Adolescent Cognitive and Self-Regulatory Competencies FromPreschool Delay of Gratification: Identifying Diagnostic Conditions
Yuichi Shoda and Walter Mischel
Columbia University
Philip K. Peake
Smith College
Variations of the self-imposed delay-of-gratification situation in preschool
compared to deter-mine when individual differences in this situation may predict aspects of cognitive and self-regula-tory competence and coping in adolescence. Preschool children from a university communityparticipated in experiments that varied features of the self-imposed delay situation. Experimentalanalyses of the cognitive-attentional processes that affect waiting in this situation helped identifyconditions in which delay behavior would be most likely to reflect relevant cognitive and atten-tional competencies. As hypothesized, in those conditions, coherent patterns of statistically signifi-cant correlations were found between seconds of delay time in such conditions in preschool andcognitive and academic competence and ability to cope with frustration and stress in adolescence.
To be able to delay immediate satisfaction for the sake offuture consequences has long been considered an essentialachievement of human development. After
a series
of investiga-tions into the individual differences associated with the choiceto delay gratification (e.g., Klineberg, 1968; Mischel, 1958,1961a, 1961b, 1966; Mischel & Metzner, 1962; Schack & Mas-sari, 1973; Walls & Smith, 1970), research turned to the pro-cesses underlying the ability to sustain self-imposed delay ofgratification after the initial choice has been made (e.g, Mis-chel, 1974,1981; Toner & Smith, 1977). In a recent follow-upstudy, preschool children who delayed gratification longer inthe self-imposed delay paradigm (e.g., Mischel, Ebbesen, &Zeiss, 1972) were described more than 10 years later by theirparents as adolescents who were significantly more competent(Mischel, Shoda, & Peake, 1988). Specifically, when these chil-dren became adolescents, their parents rated them
more aca-demically and socially competent, verbally fluent, rational, at-tentive, planful, and able to deal well with frustration andstress. The study suggested that long-term prediction may be
Preparation of this article and the research were supported in partby Grants MH45994 and MH39349 to Walter Mischel from the Na-tional Institute of Mental Health.We are grateful to Antonette Zeiss for her role in facilitating thefollow-up mailing for this study and in compiling and preparing theexperimental data for computer analysis; without her generous help,this research would have been much more difficult to conduct. Wewould also like to acknowledge the essential contributions of theformer students of Walter Mischel,
who were
crucial in conducting theoriginal experiments in which children's preschool delay time was as-sessed. Finally, we thank the children, parents, and staff of the BingSchool,
who were
both subjects and friends. Without all of these partic-ipants, this longitudinal study would not have been possible.Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Yui-chi Shoda or Walter Mischel, Department of Psychology, ColumbiaUniversity, New York, New York 10027.
possible from the self-imposed delay paradigm, adding to agrowing tradition of research devoted to the identification ofstability and coherence throughout development (e.g., Block,
Caspi, Elder,
Bern, 1987; Erickson, Sroufe,
Kagan & Moss, 1962). However, the small sample sizerequired combining the different experimental situations in
which delay
measured. Therefore,
it was
not possi-ble to compare major variations of the self-imposed
situa-tion to examine the characteristics that might render it more or
predictive of
obtained long-termoutcomes.The presentstudy is an effort to overcome this constraint.In the present study, we attempted to identify the particularpsychological conditions in which children's delay of gratifica-tion behavior is more likely to predict relevant individual dif-ferences in developmental outcomes. The identification ofthese conditions, which may be considered "diagnostic" (Quat-trone
Tversky, 1984; Tversky
Hutchinson, 1986),
deriveddirectly from the theoretical and experimental analyses of thecognitive-attentional processes that enable the young child todelay (e.g, Mischel, 1974,1981,1984). For this reason, we sup-plemented the original follow-up sample with a second, larger
of outcome data collected about
years later, and therebyalmost doubled the available number of respondents. The newfollow-up wave also added expanded rating measures of bothcognitive and coping competence, as well as Scholastic Apti-tude Test (SAT) scores. These new data allowed us to comparelong-term correlates of
behavior in the major variations
the Mischel et al. (1972) self-imposed delay situations.An important variation in the original preschool delay situa-tions was whether or not the reward objects were more salient
obscured) during the delay period. In an exten-sive series of experiments (Mischel, 1974,1981) to clarify thebasic processes allowing young children to delay gratification,it was found that for children at this age (about 4.5 years old),physically exposing the rewards appears to increase the ten-dency to have arousing, consumatory thoughts about them.
This tendency could be overcome, however, when childrenused effective cognitive strategies during the delay period, forexample, by distracting themselves from the arousing qualitiesof the rewards or by transforming them cognitively (e.g, Mis-chel & Baker,
Mischel & Moore, 1980). Furthermore, al-though these strategies were suggested
manipulations in theexperiments, they also seemed to be used spontaneously bychildren who delayed longer.Thus, when the rewards were exposed, preschoolers tendedto wait longer
were given
effective strategies, or whenthey generated their own, for reducing the arousal while sus-taining their goal-directed delay. Such strategies seemed to in-volve "a combination of avoiding excessive frustration by notfocusing
the actual rewards or
transforming them to min-imize motivational arousal, and attending instead to the sym-bolic representation of
outcomes" (Mischel, 1974, p. 288).Therefore, when preschoolers were not given these strategies,their behavior in the exposed-rewards situation should havemore readily reflected any naturally occurring individual dif-ferences in their spontaneous use of such strategies. To the de-gree that individual differences in the child's ability to generateeffective cognitive-attentional strategies to cope with delay ofgratification are enduring and have consequences for facilitat-ing adaptation, we expected children's preschool delay timemeasured with the rewards exposed to predict later outcomesand indices of cognitive and social competence relevant to thisability. On the basis of the experimental analysis and the resultsfrom the
includesuch qualities
attentional-cognitive resourcefulness and flex-ibility and, more generally, academic competencies, as well asmore effective, mature coping with frustration and stress (seeMischel et al, 1988).In comparison with the exposed-rewards condition, whenthe rewards were obscured, no special strategies seemed to berequired for preschoolers to delay (e.g, Mischel, 1974). For ex-ample, instructions to "think fun" and to self-distract did notsignificantly increase delay time when the rewards
alreadyobscured, indicating that children in this condition
were able
tospontaneously wait without such help (Mischel et al, 1972). Wetherefore reasoned that children's delay behavior in this situa-tion would be less related to their ability to generate effectivestrategies for coping with the conflict because the situation didnot demand such ability. Observed variance in delay behavior,which was still substantial, might then reflect specific motiva-tional or other situational considerations (e.g, how much theywanted the particular objects) rather than their ability to gener-
strategies for sustaining self-imposed delay.
consistent with the view that individual differences in strate-gies
 coping with frustration or stress may be especially visi-ble in situations that strain the coping competencies of theindividuals in them (Wright
Mischel, 1987). It
also consis-tent with a research strategy that has begun to show consider-able value in attachment research: Early behavioral antecedentsseem more predictive when they are assessed in situations thattax the coping
of the individual (Ainsworth,1979;Waters& Sroufe, 1983).
we have
considered the diagnosticity of
behaviorwhen children had to rely on their own coping strategies. Theavailable data also include conditions in which various strate-
and self-instructions had been suggested to the children touse during the waiting period (e.g, Mischel & Baker, 1975). Inthose conditions, children's behavior reflected not just theirown spontaneous coping with delay but also their reactions tothe suggested strategies—strategies that sometimes were help-ful for delay but that sometimes made delay more difficult. Forexample, when the experimenter suggested an effective strategy(e.g, to self-distract by "thinking fun" while waiting, as in Mis-chel et al, 1972), children who followed the instruction shouldhave been able to wait even if they had not spontaneously dis-tracted themselves. In contrast, when poor strategies (e.g, tothink about rewards) were suggested, children were exposed toa potentially confusing set of strategies (e.g, following
exper-imenter-suggested strategies vs. those they spontaneouslythought would be helpful, such as self-distraction). Thus, theirdelay
less clearly reflective of the ability
gener-ate effective strategies. However, complex and unpredictableinteractions
occur between the children's
spontaneousdelay strategies and the particular type of strategies suggestedto them, making it difficult to predict the potential meaning
the child's delay behavior in those conditions. Our theoreticalpredictions of greater diagnosticity therefore focused primarilyon comparisons between conditions in which the rewards wereexposed versus obscured, with no ideation suggested to thechildren
their strategies
entirely spontaneous). For the
of completeness, however, the data for conditions in whichstrategies were suggested will also be presented.
Preschool children's delay of gratification behavior was assessedduring a period of approximately 6 years (1968-1974) in a series ofexperiments conducted at the Bing School at Stanford University (e.g.,Mischel & Ebbesen, 1970; Mischel, et al, 1972). In those studies, atotal of
children (316 boys, 337 girls) participated in at least oneexperiment. About 10 years later (1981-1982), a short questionnaireconcerning the coping and cognitive competence of the children andthe California Child
(CCQ) were mailed to the 125 parentswhose addresses could be located, yielding
respondents (see Mis-chel et
1988). To expand the sample of respondents, a second follow-up based on a more extensive address search was conducted in 1984. Inthe second mailing, all parents were sent a new expanded question-naire about coping and competence
Adolescent Coping Question-naire;
and a biographical information sheet on which they indi-cated their children's SAT scores. The CCQs were also sent to thosewho either did not respond to the previous mailing or did not receivethe mailing because their addresses were not available at that time.Materials were mailed to parents of 506 subjects. This yielded re-sponses from parents of 90 subjects whose data were not available inthe
 follow-up, as well as additional data from the parentswho had responded in the first mailing. As a result, the sample forwhich CCQ was available increased from 67 to
and we obtainedparental ratings on the new 14-item ACQ for 134 children, as well asreports of 94 children's
scores. Together with the
 mail-ing, a sample of
now available on whom there
atleast one follow-up measure.
Of the
original subjects, 103 were not tested in a standard
imposed delay situation and therefore were not
Of the remaining550, no address was known for 114, and follow-up materials were re-
The subjects of the present study were the 185 children (103 girls, 82boys) whose preschool delay behavior was observed in a standard
imposed delay situation as described below and whose parent(s) re-turned any of the follow-up measures in either of the two waves offollow-up assessments. Although a minority of subjects had more thanone delay experience, we used only their first exposure to a delay situa-tion to avoid possible reactive effects (as discussed in Mischel et al.,1988).The mean age of the present sample at the time of experimentalassessment of delay of gratification was 4 years, 4 months. The chil-dren were preschoolers in the Bing School of Stanford University, apreschool for mostly middle-class children of faculty and studentsfrom the Stanford University community. Their mean delay time was512.8 s, with a standard deviation of 368.7 s. The mean age of thosewho responded to the first follow-up (conducted in 1981 -1982) was 1Syears, 9 months, and the mean age at the time of the second follow-up(conducted in 1984) was 18 years, 3 months. Parents of 67 of thesechildren (35 girls, 32 boys) returned the CCQ in the first mailing, andparents of 100 children (58 girls, 42 boys) returned the CCQ in thesecond mailing. Parents of
children received and returned the CCQin both mailings, making the number of subjects for whom the CCQwas available from either of the mailings a total of 165 (92 girls, 73boys). Parents of 134 children (78 girls, 56 boys) returned the ACQ(described below), and parents of 94 children reported SAT scores.
Assessment of Delay of Gratification Behavior
Delay of gratification was assessed in various versions of the basicself-imposed delay waiting paradigm described in detail elsewhere(Mischel, 1974; Mischel et al, 1972). Children were escorted individu-ally into an experimental room in the Bing School, played briefly withsome toys with the experimenter, and were told they would play withthem more later. The child was then seated at a table on which therewas a bell, and was shown reward objects determined by pretest to varyin desirability (e.g., one small marshmallow vs. two, one small stickpretzel vs. two, one colored plastic poker chip vs. two). The particularobjects in the contingency varied from study to study, but the items ineach pair were all pretested to be of age-appropriate interest and to besufficiently close in value to create a conflict for young children be-tween the temptation to stop the delay and the desire to persist for thepreferred outcome when the latter required delay. The experimentalroom was deliberately stripped of distractors. After asking which ofthe objects in the choice (e.g, one or two marshmallows) the subjectpreferred, the experimenter introduced the child to the contingency:The experimenter indicated that she or he had to go out of the roomthen but that "if you wait until I come back by myself then you canhave this one [pointing to the preferred
If you dont want towait you can ring the bell and bring me back any time you want
Butif you ring the bell then you can't have this one [pointing to the pre-ferred
but you can have that one [pointing to the less preferred
After testing the child's comprehension of the contingency, the ex-perimenter left the room and returned when the subject rang the bell orreached a predetermined criterion time (usually
min, but sometimes20 min, depending on the particular study). The time until the childturned by the post office as undeliverable for an additional 32. Thus,404 subjects probably received our follow-up material (barring unre-ported mail loss), of which the present sample of
represents a re-turn rate of
The 185 subjects in the present sample delayed anaverage of 62 s longer than the 219 who did not respond to our mailing(512.8 s vs. 450.7 s), but the difference was not significant at the .05level, /(402) = 1.7,
09.rang the bell was measured in seconds. In the present data analysis, toallow combining data across studies, delay times exceeding 15 minwere truncated at 15 min.
Four Types of Delay Situations
To test the hypotheses described earlier, subjects were divided intofour groups, defined by the two major features of the delay situation:whether rewards were exposed or obscured and whether or not anyideation instructions were given suggesting what the child might thinkabout during the delay period. The number of subjects in each of thesefour groups is shown in Table 1.Subjects in the four groups should not have differed systematicallyin sample characteristics observable at the time of the original experi-ments because they had been assigned randomly into experimentalconditions. In fact, the proportion of the sexes in the four groups wasnot significantly different, x
N =
185) = 2.87,
p >
.40, and a Sex XCondition analysis of variance
revealed no significant maineffect of sex, F(l, 174) = 0.45,
.50, condition, F(13,174) = .94,
p >
or Sex x Condition,
174) = 0.47,
p >
.70, on the age at whichdelay time was measured. With delay time
the dependent variable, aSex
revealed a significant main effect of condition,
174) = 4.3,
p <
.01, as expected, whereas no other effects weresignificant. The mean delay times reported in Table 1 confirm thatwhen no cognitive and attentional strategies were suggested, delay wasmore difficult when the rewards were exposed (e.g, Mischel, 1974).The skewness of the distribution of delay times did not significantlydiffer from 0 in any of the four conditions.
The Adolescent Coping Questionnaire
To assess the subjects' cognitive and coping competencies and
control skills in adolescence, a 14-item questionnaire was sent to all ofthe parents who were contacted in the second wave; it was returned for134 children. The 14 items are listed verbatim in Table 2; they weregiven with the following instructions:In this section we want you to think about your child in compari-son to his or her peers, such as classmates and other same-agefriends. We would like to get your impression of how your son ordaughter compares to those peers, each time on a rating scale of1-9. Record your answers in the space provided by writing in thebest number from the following scale:1 2Not at all4 5 6Moderately8 9Extremely
California Child
The CCQ is an age-appropriate modification of the California
consisting of 100 widely ranging, personality-relevant items. It was in-cluded in our research because of its extensive previous use in studiesof personality coherence and in the assessment of long-term correlatesof various aspects of the young child's delay of gratification (Funder,Block, & Block, 1983). In the first mailing, parents of 67 subjects in thepresent subsample returned the CCQ (46 subjects were described byboth parents, 3 by father only, and 18 by mother only). In the secondmailing, parents of 100 subjects returned the CCQ (64 subjects weredescribed by both parents, 9 by father only, and 27 by mother only).When both father and mother returned the CCQ describing theirchild, a composite CCQ description was formed by averaging the fa-ther's and mother^ descriptions. With an exception of two cases, therewas no overlap of subjects between the first and the second mailing (inthe second mailing, we did not send the CCQ to those subjects whoreturned it in the first mailing). Thus, a total of 165 subjects were

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