Methods: We used archival data from the NICHD Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development (SECCYD) to conceptually replicate the predictive validity of preschool delay of gratification and to identify the factors underlying delay of gratification that would most benefit later outcomes if targeted for intervention. We focused on self-control and social support, because both may causally influence delay of gratification and contribute to the life outcomes associated with it, but determining their relative importance would suggest distinct directions for intervention. All aspects of our hypotheses, measured variables, methods, and planned analyses were preregistered (goo.gl/Seyzfw). Regression models were used to estimate relationships between preschool delay of gratification and five adolescent outcomes measured at age 15. Multilevel models were then used to estimate relationships between preschool delay of gratification and adolescent problem behaviors while controlling for self-control and social support to see which factor explained the greatest proportion of variance in observed relationships.
Results: Preschool delay of gratification predicted three of five adolescent outcomes we tested (academic achievement, β=0.270, F=11.22, p<.001; behavior problems, β=-0.224, F=-9.38, p=.002; and social skills, β=0.017, F=5.78, p=.017; but not emotion regulation or personality, p’s>.10). The association with behavior problems was the only relationship that remained significant after including baseline outcome controls (β=-0.175, F=-6.45, p=.011). Approximately 3% of the variance in adolescent behavior problems was associated with whether or not they delayed gratification in preschool in our multilevel models. Children’s social support from their parents and peers explained nearly twice as much variance in these relationships as their self-control (30% versus 17%).
Conclusions: Difficulty delaying gratification in preschool serves as an early life marker of later problem behaviors. Policies and programs that seek to improve delay of gratification in children and adults who struggle should focus on social factors over cognitive factors to yield the greatest benefits.