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Validation of a Choice Delay of Gratification Measure among Children of Color from Low-Income Families

Fri, March 22, 7:45 to 9:15am, Baltimore Convention Center, Floor: Level 1, Exhibit Hall B

Integrative Statement

Delaying gratification in early childhood is a famous harbinger of well-being in many domains of life (Casey et al., 2011; Moffit et al., 2011), a fact traditionally attributed to delayed gratification being an indicator of self-control (Duckworth, 2011; Mischel, 2014; Tobin & Graziano, 2011). However, processes other than self-control may underlie delayed gratification among children of color and from low-income families (e.g., Strickland, 1972; Sturge-Apple et al., 2016), who are under-represented in the research base. It is important, then, to consider the construct validity of delayed gratification within this population.

The present study examined the reliability and validity of a six-item “choice delay” task administered to 372 Black and/or Latino children from low income families at the start of kindergarten (average age = 5.5 years). “Choice delay” tasks require detection and selection of larger-later over smaller-sooner rewards but, in contrast with the more famous “marshmallow test,” no maintenance of said choice. Extant evidence for the construct validity of such tasks is weak (e.g., Prencipe & Zelazo, 2005; Schwarz et al., 1983) but has not been sought in the present study’s target population.

An item factor analysis revealed high internal reliability in performance across items when modeled with a single latent factor, though not all items equally reflected said factor. There were significant bivariate correlations among item residuals, which may indicate dependence, or multi-dimensionality, across items and warrants caution in interpretation of item parameters and composite scores.

Choice delay performance was significantly and negatively correlated with concurrently-measured executive function (r = -.21, p < .001) and concurrent teacher reports of self-management (r = -.14, p < .05) and responsible decision-making (r = -.16, p < .05). In regression analyses controlling for concurrent EF, age, gender, and other key covariates, choice delay performance predicted more difficulties transitioning to kindergarten (β = .13, p < .05) and fewer positive (β = -.15, p < .05) and more negative classroom behaviors (β = .11, p < .05) at the end of kindergarten. Choice delay performance also negatively predicted later academic achievement, but not after accounting for concurrent academic achievement and/or executive function.

In short, children with proclivity toward choosing immediate gratification had better school-related outcomes, in general, than those favoring delayed gratification. This contrasts with what traditional theory would predict but resonates with the notion that a proclivity toward immediate gratification may be adaptive in high-poverty or high-stress settings (Ellis et al., 2017; Sturge-Apple et al., 2016). Processes other than self-control (e.g., task comprehension and reward expectancy/trust) may be confounded in delay of gratification tasks (Schwarz et al., 1983; Kidd, Palmieri, & Aslin, 2013) and may explain the present study’s observations if considered from the perspective of children of racial/ethnic minority status and/or from low-SES families. Reevaluation of delayed gratification and related constructs may be pertinent in light of these findings and the growing number of “character” development programs targeting this population, as such programs are often heavily influenced by traditional psychological theory (McNeel, 2013; Moreton, 2014).


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