In this study, we use an experimental dataset collected in the framework of the longitudinal German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) study to investigate possible determinants of delayed gratification in children between the ages of five and six (referred to in the following as "patience in children"). The study is a joint project of the IEW Zurich, the SOEP Berlin and the ZEW Mannheim. We analyze the ability to delay gratification at preschool age and examine its main determinants. The experiment was conducted in the children’s homes and the design followed the classical delay of gratification experiments: The interviewer opened a pack of gummy bears and explained that the child could either start eating them during the interview or wait until the end of the mother’s interview and receive an additional pack. Thus, children were faced with the decision between receiving a smaller reward (one pack of gummy bears) sooner or waiting and receiving a larger reward (two packs of gummy bears) later. A second experiment was conducted to assess the time preferences of mothers. The ability to delay gratification, that is, to choose a larger but delayed reward instead of a smaller but immediate one, appears to be important for the development of effort regulation and action control strategies. From an economic point of view, time preferences have a significant impact on achievements in school, success in the labour market, and, more generally, on consumption and investment decisions. When proposing educational policies it is necessary to identify the developmental stages at which reliability and the ability to delay gratification can best be improved. In this context, recent research has stressed the relevance of preschool age, because basic cognitive and non-cognitive skills developed at preschool age predict school success. Our study contributes to this debate by providing evidence on time preferences of children at preschool age and of their mothers. Our results clearly show that patience increases in younger children with increasing age, and that better verbal skills and patience are positively correlated. The latter finding is also an indication that patience is of importance later in life as well. Gender, the number of children in the household, household income, and attending educational establishments show no connection with patience. However, the results suggest that a more patient mother and a longer period of breast-feeding during infancy increase the probability of the child being patient. Patience as a basis for life success is therefore not just a question of biology and heredity: rather, the interaction between parent and child and socialization in early childhood appears to be the “cradle of human behavior” in the area of time preferences as well. We conclude that the ability to delay gratification is deeply rooted in childhood factors.

Bartling, Bjoern, Ernst Fehr, Barbara Fischer, Fabian Kosse, Michel Maréchal, Friedhelm Pfeiffer, Daniel Schunk, Juergen Schupp, C. Katharina Spieß and Gert G. Wagner (2009), Geduld von Vorschulkindern - Ergebnisse einer Experimentalstudie im Haushaltskontext von Kindern, ZEW Discussion Paper No. 09-069, Mannheim. Download


Bartling, Bjoern
Fehr, Ernst
Fischer, Barbara
Kosse, Fabian
Maréchal, Michel
Pfeiffer, Friedhelm
Schunk, Daniel
Schupp, Juergen
Spieß, C. Katharina
Wagner, Gert G.


Ungeduld, Motivationsaufschub, Experimentelles Design, SOEP