Psychological Distance

Why are kids today better at delaying gratification?

August 12, 2018

Last week, I told you that compared to 50 years ago, kids today are better at delaying gratification.

Why is the capacity for self-control on the rise?

Stephanie Carlson, the scientist responsible for this discovery, is one of my close collaborators. I called to ask her what she thinks.

“Children today are better at symbolic thinking,” Stephanie told me. “And symbolic thinking facilitates self-control.”

“Symbolic thinking means mentally representing objects and events in ways that extend beyond the here-and-now,” Stephanie explained. “These mental transformations help put psychological distance between you and temptations.”

“For instance, in the marshmallow test, children wait longer when they pretend the marshmallow isn’t a sticky, sweet treat but, instead, a fluffy, white cloud.”

Of course, a marshmallow is not a cloud. But thinking about how a marshmallow is white and fluffy like a cloud temporarily transforms a “hot” temptation into something “cool” because, after all, you can’t eat a cloud.

Here’s another example.

When my daughter Lucy was six years old, I took her to Dunkin’ Donuts for a chocolate glazed donut.

“I’m not hungry now,” Lucy informed me as I handed her the bag. “I’m going to save my donut for later.”

“Fine,” I said, and then looked down to see her swinging the bag back and forth, singing: “I have a cell phone! Mommy bought me a cell phone!”

“Lucy,” I said. “That’s a donut. Not a cell phone!”

Lucy looked up and smiled: “But Mommy, you can’t eat a cell phone!

Temptations are everywhere—and never more numerous or more potent. But how we think about them is up to us.

More than any generation before them, kids today are capable of putting psychological distance between themselves and the marshmallows, cell phones, and other “hot” temptations in their lives.

Psychological distance is a trick you learn early in life and benefit from more and more as you mature. So the next time you struggle with self-control, remember you can use your mind to keep your cool.

With grit and gratitude,

About the author

Angela Duckworth is a co-founder of Character Lab, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.