Desire for immediate gratification and present orientation are more frequently observed in adults coming from low socioeconomic backgrounds (Adams & White, 2009; Haushofer & Fehr, 2014; Pepper & Nettle, 2017). However, few studies have related socioeconomic and other family context variables with the development of episodic foresight (EF) in young children. Mapping the variables that contribute to the development of EF may be crucial to understand the intergenerational reproduction of the behavioral constellation of deprivation, as suggested by Pepper and Nettle (2017).
EF is defined as the ability to project oneself into the future to anticipate and pre-experience events, desires, or mental states (Atance & O’Neill, 2001). EF demands the construction of mental representations upon facts that may happen and implies the anticipation of the self in relation to personal future, detached from the actual emotional state or beliefs of the person, and located at an approximate time and place (Atance & O’Neill, 2001; Suddendorf & Redshaw, 2013).
Assessment of EF in young children presents methodological challenges since adult methods are not suitable (e.g., self-report). For this reason, most common methods for evaluating young children’s EF skills include a variety of experimental tasks (verbal, choice, and location tasks; for a review see Hudson, Mayhew, & Prabhakar, 2011), while the main debate is how thoroughly EF is actually being measured as well as the extent to which the construct is isolated from other cognitive demands of the task (e.g., language, working memory, planning).
This concern is also related to how EF is associated with other variables of cognitive development. Hypothesis in specialized literature include the notion of EF as a self-projection process (Buckner & Carroll, 2007) and EF as part of an episodic cognition system, including the role of language in episodic memory and foresight development (Suddendorf, Addis, & Corballis, 2009). EF is also considered in line with other future-oriented processes since it shares a forecasting component with these forms of future-oriented thought such as formal planning and delay of gratification. However, EF is also distinguishable from these. For instance, certain forms of planning that imply making predictions about the physical world (e.g., mentally represent alternative actions or transformations over objects) do not involve envisioning the future self at a specific moment (Jackson & Atance, 2008). For the case of delay of gratification, EF may contribute to performance (e.g., being able to envision the delayed reward may help to discount less the future), even though it has been argued that semantic knowledge and executive functions prevail (Hanson, Atance, & Paluck, 2014; Hudson et al., 2011; Jackson & Atance, 2008; Vásquez-Echeverría, 2015).
EF emerges between 3 and 5 years of age (Atance & Jackson, 2009; Suddendorf & Redshaw, 2013), being, in general, incipient at age 3, presenting considerable individual variability at the age of 4, and improved performance at age 5. This pattern is observed even when different task formats are involved (Bélanger, Atance, Varghese, Nguyen, & Vendetti, 2014; Busby & Suddendorf, 2005; Suddendorf & Busby, 2005). However, to our knowledge, no studies have explored hypotheses regarding the interindividual differences in EF found at this developmental period.
Interindividual differences in cognitive development are explained, to an important extent, by characteristics of developmental contexts and the proximal processes to which children are exposed (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006). Given the absence of studies that systematically analyze interindividual differences in EF, we will examine the association of family context variables (family SES and environment quality, and caregiver future orientation) that given their influence on general cognitive development, we expect will also affect EF and the cognitive demands associated to foresight. One of the variables that is most related to cognitive and socioemotional development is SES of the family. Low SES has been associated to school dropout, lower scores on IQ measures, and executive functioning tasks, among others (Bradley & Corwyn, 2002; Gottfried, Gottfried, Bathurst, Guerin, & Parramore, 2012). Causes underlying this phenomenon include adverse effects of persistent poverty on parental investment, higher stress levels, and the absence of material resources for stimulation (Dickerson & Popli, 2016; Evans & Kim, 2013).
Other contextual factors that have been reported to explain the influence of SES in child development include quantity and quality of stimulation that a child receives at home, e.g., interaction and linguistic stimulation, even before age three (Hart & Risley, 2003); demands of maturity; parental stress and exposure to conflict; care and monitoring; or limit setting, among others (Bradley & Corwyn, 2002; Evans & Kim, 2013). Lastly, some scholars have shown evidence of intergenerational transmission of future orientation in parent-adolescent dyads (Andre, van Vianen, & Peetsma, 2017; Seginer, 2005), but to our knowledge, no studies have explored this phenomenon in parent-child dyads. We believe parental future orientation, such as their level of consideration of future consequences (CFC), could be related to individual differences in future cognition in young children. Hudson (2006) has suggested that the kind of parental linguistic stimulation and the involvement in patterns of future-oriented interaction favor future understanding of the child. Moreover, parents differ in how they share future and past experiences to their offspring, and that is related to adolescents’ time perspective (Shirai & Higata, 2016). In this line, it is possible to reason that parents’ CFC level may be determining the temporal horizon of their actions and the type of interaction and temporal language addressed to their children, which in turn, behaviorally models the acquisition and development of EF in their children. Also, lower CFC scores are present, on average, in persons coming from lower SES backgrounds (Adams & White, 2009; Pepper & Nettle, 2017). Nevertheless, to the best of our knowledge, no studies have empirically explored the relations of parental CFC with their offspring levels of EF, in a sample coming from different socioeconomic backgrounds.
This study has two main objectives. The first is to explore the association of SES, parental CFC, and quality of family environment on EF in a sample of preschool-aged children coming from low and medium-high SES backgrounds. We expect that children from higher SES backgrounds, with better quality of family context and parents with higher CFC scores, will present higher scores on EF tasks. Given that in previous literature, SES independently predicted the variance in cognitive development, quality of family environment, and future orientation, parental education as a continuous measure of objective SES (American Psychological Association, 2007) will be controlled for.
Second, we want to compare the magnitude of the effects found in our first objective with those of CFC, family environment, and SES on delay of gratification and planning. As we mentioned, EF may be related to future-oriented processes, as they all share the demand of acting now to reach a future outcome. Planning and delay of gratification are considered future-oriented processes (Atance & Jackson, 2009) that present a weaker development in children from low SES backgrounds (e.g., Hackman, Gallop, Evans, & Farah, 2015; Raver, Blair, & Willoughby, 2013). In this sense, it is important to measure if the relation of SES with EF development resembles to the more documented relation between SES and the other future-oriented processes. Since these processes are theoretically related, we expect that the effects of SES, parental CFC, and family context on EF development will be similar when compared to planning and delay of gratification.