, Volume 3, Issue 2, pp 103-115

Processes operative during delay of gratification

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Abstract

Sixty-four middle-class preschool children chose between waiting for a preferred item and receiving a less desired item immediately. The items were of different classes, i.e., one food and one toy, and subjects waited with one, both, or neither of the rewards available for viewing. The likelihood that a subject would continue waiting for the delayed reward was found to increase as a function of previous waiting time rather than decrease or remain constant as required by two current theories of delay of gratification processes, an aversive affect model implied by Mischel and Ebbesen (1970) and Atkinson and Birch's (1970) “dynamics of action.” Although display of rewards impaired successful delay, replicating previous results, dynamics of action predictions of differential effects for display of immediately available and delayed outcomes of different classes were not confirmed. Systematic observation of spontaneous subject activities during the delay period offered additional support for the notion that distraction facilitates successful waiting behavior. A decision-attention model is proposed to account for the present results as well as those of previous studies of delay of gratification.

We would like to thank the director, Mr. Jack Lewis, and the staff of the Red Bell Nursery of Plymouth, Michigan, for helping us obtain subjects for this study and providing access to their facilities. We are also grateful to Ms. Shirley St. Peter and Ms. Carolyn Jagacinski for their work as experimenters.