Children in northern Italy whose first language is German are more patient than their Italian-speaking peer group, according to new research by Silvia Angerer, Daniela Glätzle-Rützler, Philipp Lergetporer and Matthias Sutter.
Their findings, presented at the Royal Economic Society”s 2013 annual conference, suggest that differences in cultural attitudes might explain some of the difference in economic performance between northern and southern Europe. But the study also finds that patience can be learned from friends from other cultures.
The research surveyed 1,200 schoolchildren aged 6 to 11 years in Meran, a formerly Austrian town in South Tyrol (now northern Italy) with two distinct communities divided by language. The researchers asked each of the children a simple question: ”Do you prefer to receive two small presents now or a larger number of presents in four weeks”time?” By looking at how the answer changes when the number of presents a child has to wait for increases from 3 to 4 or 5, the researchers can compare children”s patience.
The study finds that Italian-speaking children are more impatient than German speakers in all age groups. German-speaking children are 1.4 times more likely to wait than the Italian-speaking children.
The authors then looked at children who had a mixed circle of friends. They find that attitudes towards patience can be picked up from friends. But while Italian-speaking friends do not influence the patience of their German-speaking friends, Italian-speaking children who have German-speaking friends choose to wait 1.3 times more often than their companions without such friends.
The analysis focused on South Tyrol as it offers an ideal setting for studying the effects of cultural differences. South Tyrol used to be Austrian and thus German-speaking and was given to Italy in the aftermath of the First World War. As a result, many southern Italians moved there, in part due to a controversial settlement policy.
Since then, both language groups have been living next door to one another and co-exist in the same economic and political setting. Yet their social interaction is kept to a minimum – there are separate school systems, associations, residential buildings and media. This allows the researchers to examine the effect of just the cultural differences.
The idea that ”patience is a virtue” is supported by several studies of child behaviour and their eventual success as adults. Patient children are known to do better at schooland, in later life, to save more, contribute more to their communities and lead healthier lives. The analysis therefore has implications locally for South Tyrol”s policies towards integration and, perhaps, internationally as the present crisis brings the economic and social models of Europe”s member countries under scrutiny.
Recent studies show that patience is a highly desirable trait in children: it leads to health-conscious behaviour and more promising career prospects. Silvia Angerer, Daniela Glätzle-Rützler, Philipp Lergetporer, and Matthias Sutter from the University of Innsbruck explored the development of patience in two geographically integrated, but de facto non-interacting, language groups in South Tyrol, an autonomous bilingual province in Northern Italy.
They find that language group affiliation makes a difference: Italian-speaking 6 to 11 year olds are more impatient than their German-speaking fellows. Furthermore, patience is a transferable attitude: cross-language friendships make Italians more patient, but do not have an effect on the time preferences of Germans.
The ability to delay gratification is required in many situations in a child”s life. The impact of this virtue goes well beyond dramas between parents and their impatient offspring at supermarket checkouts: indeed, adolescents must typically decide about their future career path early in life. In the decision between continuing an education after compulsory school and taking employment to earn a salary earlier, time preferences are decisive.
Beyond this, patience serves as reliable predictor for economically relevant field behaviour: patient children save more, achieve better educational outcomes, are less likely to drop out of school, exhibit more pronounced pro-social behaviour and pursue a healthier lifestyle. Despite these well-established findings, the driving forces behind this desirable behaviour have not yet been identified.
With the objective of investigating cultural effects on time preferences and the impact of intercultural interaction, the researchers went to Meran, a town in South Tyrol (Northern Italy), and asked all 1,200 primary school kids, aged 6 to 11, three fairly simple questions. The questions read ”Do you prefer to receive two little presents now or a larger number of presents in four weeks” time?” Altering the reward for waiting from 3 over 4 to 5 small gifts, the participants revealed their degree of patience.
It was no coincidence that the experiment was run in South Tyrol. For historical reasons, it offers an ideal framework for studying the effects of cultural differences. South Tyrol used to be Austrian and thus German-speaking and was given to Italy in the aftermath of the First World War. Due to the controversial settlement policy of the fascist regime in the years between 1922 and 1943, many Italians from the south of the country were moved to South Tyrol.
As a result, both language groups have been living door to door to one another for several decades. But social interaction between them is at a minimum. Artefacts of this segregation include separated school and education systems, associations, residential buildings and media. Due to the fact that there is no geographical segregation betweenthe two groups, Meran offers ideal conditions to study behavioural differences in culture while abstracting from other factors.
And indeed, behaviour does differ: Italian children are more impatient than Germans in all age groups. German-speaking children choose to wait, on average, 1.4 times more often than Italian-speaking children do. Thus, the sole affiliation to a language group and its associated culture make a big difference.
But the story does not end here. Despite the fact that there is little interaction between language groups, there are children with intercultural circles of friends. Investigating the choices of these kids reveals that desirable attitudes towards patience seem to be transmittable: Italian-speaking children who have German-speaking friends choose to wait 1.3 times more often than their companions without such friends. But Italian-speaking friends do not influence the patience of German-speaking kids.
The question whether or not to integrate the German- and Italian-speaking school systems has been one of the most controversially discussed issues in South Tyrol”s integration policy. Thus far, the introduction of one single educational system for both language groups failed due to an unclear effect on the language skills of the children and, most importantly, separatist rhetoric.
From a behavioural point of view, this study offers strong arguments in favour of integration as an enhanced interaction evokes desirable traits, namely patience, among a significant part of society.
”Getting more patient: The development of time preferences in children”, S Angerer, D Glätzle-Rützler, P Lergetporer and M Sutter (2013)
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