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Enjoy It Now... Or Enjoy It Later? Understanding Delayed Gratification

Difficulty
Time Required Very Long (1+ months)
Prerequisites You will need to survey several preschool-aged children. You must also have access to a video camera with a digital timer and a tripod.
Material Availability Readily available
Cost Low ($20 - $50)
Safety No issues

Abstract

Have you ever thought to yourself, "I have got to have that new video game right now?" Or maybe there's a new shirt at the store that you just have to have. So you rush home, break into your bank, and gather all of your money, even though you have been saving to buy your mom a gift. But wait! Maybe if you do a few more chores and save for just a few more days, you can gather enough money to buy your mom a gift and buy what you want. This behavior is called delayed gratification and it's what this human behavior science fair project is all about. Learn more about delayed gratification and how rewards and attention affect the amount of delay.

Objective

To learn about the human behavior called delay of gratification, and to determine how delayed gratification depends on gender and attention.

Credits

Michelle Maranowski, PhD, Science Buddies

Cite This Page

MLA Style

Science Buddies Staff. "Enjoy It Now... Or Enjoy It Later? Understanding Delayed Gratification" Science Buddies. Science Buddies, 7 Dec. 2012. Web. 1 Oct. 2014 <http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/HumBeh_p046.shtml>

APA Style

Science Buddies Staff. (2012, December 7). Enjoy It Now... Or Enjoy It Later? Understanding Delayed Gratification. Retrieved October 1, 2014 from http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/HumBeh_p046.shtml

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Last edit date: 2012-12-07

Introduction

Have you ever worked hard toward a goal? For example, have you ever saved your allowance in order to buy something big, like a gift for your mom? Saving money can be a difficult thing to do, especially when there are so many other things you can spend your money on. Sometimes you break down and buy an item that you were not saving for and didn't think about buying until you passed by it in the store. This human behavior is called instant gratification.

Human infants are examples of instant gratification. Whatever babies want, they want it right then, and they will often cry until they get it. At what age does a human infant develop patience? When do we learn how to exert self-regulation and postpone instant gratification in order to reach a more valuable goal? For example, instead of running out and buying a video game, when do we humans realize that saving money and getting the video game and a present for mom is a better idea? This behavior of resisting temptation is called delayed gratification and is very important to develop. Can you imagine having a friend who demanded getting his or her way immediately, all the time? It would be hard for that person to get along with other people and he or she would soon lose many friends.

But what allows someone to delay gratification in hopes of getting a more valuable reward? Are some people better at delaying gratification than others? A group of psychologists in the 1970's investigated at what age kids learn how to delay gratification and the techniques they use to resist temptation. Does it help to focus your attention on the future reward, or is it better to distract your attention? To figure out the answers to these questions, the psychologists developed the marshmallow experiment. In this experiment, the test subjects were told that they could eat a marshmallow right away, or if they waited for 15 minutes before eating the first marshmallow, they could have two marshmallows to eat. In one situation, the children were exposed to the marshmallows during the wait. In a second situation, the marshmallows were hidden from the test subjects.

In this human behavior science fair project, you will investigate delayed gratification by performing the marshmallow experiment. Gather a group of kids and investigate whether focusing attention on the goal or reward helps to delay gratification. An added bonus to this science fair project is that at the end, you can enjoy a few of those marshmallows yourself!

Terms and Concepts

  • Instant gratification
  • Behavior
  • Delayed gratification
  • Psychology
  • The marshmallow experiment

Questions

  • What is the difference between instant gratification and delayed gratification?
  • Why is it important for humans to develop the delayed gratification behavior?
  • In the course of your research, did you discover any connections between delayed gratification and future achievement? Did you discover any connections between delayed gratification and any other human condition?

Bibliography

For help creating graphs, try this website:

Materials and Equipment

  • Test subjects, preschool-age (at least 20). Split the group into two sub-groups of ten: group A and group B. Each group should have an even mix of boys and girls.
  • Tables (2)
  • Chair
  • Video camera with a digital timer
  • Tripod that fits the video camera
  • Bell
  • Stopwatch
  • Marshmallows, large (5 bags)
  • Napkin
  • Food storage container (1)
  • Lab notebook
  • Graph paper

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Experimental Procedure

Performing the Experiment

  1. Since you will be working with human subjects, you need to get advance permission from the children's parents or guardians (and teachers if you are performing the test while they are in school) to make sure that it is alright for the children to participate in the science fair project. There are special considerations when designing an experiment involving human subjects. Intel ISEF-affiliated (International Science and Engineering) fairs often require an Informed Consent Form for every participant who is questioned. Consult the rules and regulations of the science fair that you are entering, prior to performing experiments or surveys. Please refer to the following Science Buddies document for additional important requirements for studies involving human subjects: Scientific Review Committee (SRC).
    1. Write a clear description of your science fair project, what you are studying, and what you hope to learn. Include how the child will be tested and the reward you will be using. Include a paragraph where you get a parent's or guardian's, and/or teacher's signature.
    2. Print out as many copies as you need for each child you will be surveying.
    3. Pass them out to the children or to the teachers of the children to give to the parents. You must have permission for each child in order to be able to use them as a test subject.
  2. Arrange for a quiet place, such as in your school, where you can easily meet with your test subjects, individually. Because there are so many test subjects, you might want to set up several time slots after school on several days when the test subjects can come and participate. Each test subject will need to be available for approximately 20 minutes.
  3. Set up the two tables across from each other, with the chair between them. Mount the video camera in a location in the room that allows you to see the test subject and the test area, but doesn't get in the way and is not too noticeable. Place the bell on the table, facing the chair.
  4. Make sure that the video camera is on and recording before each test subject enters the room. Say the group and assigned number out loud (such as Group A, Number 1) so the camera records it before the test subject enters. This represents the group and the individual number of the test subject so you can go back later and watch the video tape, and record the behavior observations in the correct row of your data table.
  5. Have a test subject come in from Group A. Have him or her sit in the chair. Let the test subject know that this is a test about marshmallows and that he or she can have a marshmallow right away, or that if he or she can wait for 15 minutes while you do a task outside of the room, he or she can have two marshmallows. Point to the bell and ask the test subject to ring the bell if he or she wants to eat a marshmallow, and that you will then come back right away.
    1. Make sure you say the same thing to each test subject. If you need to, write down what you want to say and practice saying it a couple of times in a mirror.
  6. Leave the room and start the stopwatch. Wait outside of the room so that if the test subject rings the bell, you will be able to hear the sound.
  7. Go back into the room, either when you hear the bell or after 15 minutes have elapsed. Stop the video camera. Record the amount of time that you were out of the room in your lab notebook in a data table, like the one shown below. Be sure to record the group letter you assigned the test subject, as well as his or her gender and age. Thank the test subject for participating in the test.

Group A Data Table

Participant Number Gender Age Behavior Observations Time of Delay Before Asking for Marshmallows
A1 F 4 The subject was patient, but became more fidgety. She rang the bell after 10 minutes. 10 minutes
           
           
           
           
           
           
           
           
           


  1. Repeat steps 4–7 with all of the subjects. Record all data in your lab notebook.
  2. Now have a test subject come in from Group B and sit in the chair. Make sure that the video camera is on and recording before, he or she enters the room. Say the group and assigned number out loud (such as Group B, Number 1) so the camera records it before the test subject enters. Let the test subject know that this is a test about marshmallows and that he or she can have a marshmallow right away or can have two marshmallows if he or she can wait for 15 minutes while you do a task outside of the room. Point to the bell and ask the test subject to ring the bell if he or she wants to eat a marshmallow, and that you will come back right away. Now show the test subject the three marshmallows and place one marshmallow in front of him or her on a napkin. Place the other two marshmallows into a food storage container on the table behind him or her.
    1. Make sure you say the same thing to each test subject. If you need to, write down what you want to say and practice saying it a couple of times in a mirror.
  3. Leave the room and start the stopwatch. Wait outside of the room so that if the test subject rings the bell, you will be able to hear the sound.
  4. Go back into the room, either when you hear the bell or after 15 minutes have elapsed. Record the amount of time you were out of the room in your lab notebook. Be sure to record the group letter you assigned the test subject, as well as his or her gender and age. You should record the data from each group in a separate table. Thank the test subject for participating in the test.
  5. Repeat steps 9–11 with all of the subjects from Group B. Record all data in your lab notebook.
  6. Rewind the video tape and observe what the test subjects all do while they are waiting. Record your observations in your lab notebook in the data table.

Analyzing Your Data

  1. Average the data for each group. Create a data table, like the one below, so that you can view the data easily.


Group Average Time of Delay Before Asking for a Marshmallow
Preschool; No marshmallows on table (Group A)  
Preschool; Marshmallows on table (Group B)  


  1. Graph the data. You can make your graphs by hand, or if you need more information on graphs or would like to do your graphs online, use the following website: Create a Graph. Label the x-axis Group and the y-axis Average Time of Delay Before Asking for a Marshmallow.
  2. Do you notice any trends? Is there a higher time delay with the marshmallows in the room or without marshmallows in the room? Does distracting attention improve the time of delay?
  3. Now examine the original set of data and separate and organize by gender. Average the time of delay data and record the results in a data table, like the one shown below.


Gender and Experiment Average Time of Delay Before Asking for a Marshmallow
Preschool; No marshmallows on table (Group A), Female  
Preschool; No marshmallows on table (Group A), Male  
Preschool; Marshmallows on table (Group B) Female  
Preschool; Marshmallows on table (Group B) Male  


  1. Graph the data from the third table. Label the x-axis Gender and the y-axis Average Time of Delay Before Asking for a Marshmallow. Make a graph for each group, A and B. Does gender affect the time of delay? What is the difference in average time of delay between the girls from group A and the girls from group B? What is the difference in average time of delay between the boys from group A and the boys from group B? What did you observe the test subjects doing while they were waiting for marshmallows?

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Variations

  • Young children, like those in preschool, do not grasp the concept of time. Would having a timer set to 15 minutes help the children increase their delay of gratification?
  • How important is the reward? How long would the average time of delay be if the reward that you offered were pretzels or carrot sticks? How would it affect the delay of gratification if the students were allowed to pick their own reward from a tray of rewards?
  • Further test the effect of distracting attention from the reward. Instead of just having no marshmallows in the room, have the test subjects perform age-appropriate puzzles, like crossword puzzles or word jumbles.
  • Investigate when humans start to develop patience. Repeat the procedure with 20 1st graders and 20 4th graders. What is the average time of delay for the 1st graders? What is the time of delay for the 4th graders? Is the average time of delay for the older students longer than the average time of delay for the preschoolers?

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