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Health & Balance

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Resisting Temptation May Not Get Easier With Age

Issues With Self-Control and Delayed Gratification May Persist From Childhood to Adulthood
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Sept. 2, 2011 -- Children who have a hard time passing up one cookie now with the promise of more later will probably have just as hard a time resisting temptation as adults, according to a new study.

Researchers found children who had difficulty delaying gratification as preschoolers were more likely to seek instant gratification as adults. They also showed differences in brain activity that may be linked to self-control issues.

"This is the first time we have located the specific brain areas related to delayed gratification. This could have major implications in the treatment of obesity and addictions," says study researcher B.J. Casey, in a news release. Casey is director of the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City.

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Self-Control Issues Persist

The results from the new study follow a study of delayed gratification in children originally conducted in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In the initial study, researchers used marshmallows and cookies to test the ability of preschool children to delay gratification. If they resisted the temptation to eat a treat, they were rewarded with more treats later.

Some children were able to resist, but others were not.

In this follow-up study, 59 adults in their mid-40s who participated as children in the original study were tested. Rather than marshmallows and cookies, which are less appealing to adults, researchers used emotional cues showing a happy or frightened face on a computer screen to test their ability to delay gratification.

"In this test, a happy face took the place of the marshmallow. The positive social cue interfered with the low delayer's ability to suppress his or her actions," says Casey.

The study showed that the same children who wanted their cookie right away were more likely to seek instant gratification as adults. Those who were better at delaying gratification remained so as adults.

In addition, brain imaging showed an area of the brain linked to addiction known as the ventral striatum was more active in people who had difficulty delaying gratification.

Researchers say the results suggest the ability to resist temptation and maintain self-control remains relatively stable from childhood through adulthood and may play a role in obesity and addiction.

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