Generalized trust predicts young children's willingness to delay gratification

J Exp Child Psychol. 2018 May;169:118-125. doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2017.12.015.


Young children's willingness to delay gratification by forgoing an immediate reward to obtain a more desirable one in the future predicts a wide range of positive social, cognitive, and health outcomes. Standard accounts of this phenomenon have focused on individual differences in cognitive control skills that allow children to engage in goal-oriented behavior, but recent findings suggest that person-specific trust is also important, with children showing a stronger tendency to delay gratification if they have reason to trust the individual who is promising the future reward. The current research builds on those findings by examining generalized trust, which refers to the extent to which others are generally viewed as trustworthy. A total of 150 3- to 5-year-olds in China were tested. Participants were given the opportunity to obtain one sticker immediately, or wait for 15 min for two stickers. Results showed that participants with high levels of generalized trust waited longer even after controlling for age and level of executive function. These results suggest that trust plays a role in delaying gratification even when children have no information about the individual who is promising the future reward. More broadly, the findings build on recent evidence that there is more to delay of gratification than cognitive capacity, and they suggest that there are individual differences in whether children consider sacrificing for a future outcome to be worth the risk.

Keywords: Childhood development; Decision making; Delay of gratification; Individual differences; Preschool age; Trust.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Child, Preschool
  • China
  • Delay Discounting*
  • Executive Function
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Individuality
  • Male
  • Reward*
  • Trust*