Blog #14 The Art of Delayed Gratification

What can kids teach adults about delaying gratification? Plenty, it seems going by the results of a famous experiment pioneered by noted psychologists, Walter Mischel of Columbia University. This experiment is now famously known as the “Marshmallow Experiment”.

Marshmallow cartoon

The marshmallow experiment was first carried out in the 1960s at Bing  Nursery School on the Stanford University campus. Preschoolers between the ages of 3 and 5 were individually seated in a room with a table in front of them. On the table was a marshmallow.

The experimenter tells the kid that she will leave the room for a while and that he could eat the marshmallow while she was out.  If he could defer eating the marshmallow until she returns, he will be given an extra marshmallow.

This experiment has been replicated many times. Watch this amusing video of a recent version of this experiment.

Two question:

  1. What does this experiment success or failure in adult life?
  2. How did the “successful” kids in the video deal with instant gratification?



Answer to Question 1

Decades after the original experiment, Dr. Mischel and his colleagues followed up to see how their subjects, adults by now, fared in terms of scholastic achievement (college-admissions SAT scores), health (measured by the body mass index or BMI), cognitive and social skills.

The results were astonishing.

The kids who waited for the bonus treat had higher SAT scores, higher ratings for cognitive and social skills and lower BMI than those who didn’t manage to delay gratification.

While Mischel and team did not measure financial success, one can reasonably assume that given the far reaching influence of self-control that success would also show up in personal finance achievements such as ability to save early or show restraint in the use of credit.

This result was confirmed in a separate study by Duke University research Terrie Moffitt and her collaborators. In one of the most comprehensive study of its kind, they monitored in detail the physical, cognitive, socio-behavioral and financial health of 1,000 New Zealand-born children in the town of Dunedin over a period of 30 years, literally tracking their every development aspect from baby to around age 32. Long story short, the study found that

“even poor children (those from poor socio-economic background) who scored best on measures of self-control were more likely than others to become wealthy in later life. “One interpretation of the findings is that children with high self-control who began life in low-income homes ended up as adults with higher incomes,” says Professor Moffitt.

Watch a “trailer” of the Dunedin study on Youtube

Watch a summary of the study by Terrie Moffitt on TED Talk

Or read this if you prefer a textual summary of the study.


Answer to Question 2

The marshmallow experiment is about exercising willpower. Never an easy thing to do, especially when you are a 5-year old with a marshmallow right in front of you.

What’s interesting about the experiment is the trick that some kids used to delay gratification. That trick is distraction.

Some kids rolled their eyes, some looked up at the ceiling, others turned their backs on the marshmallow, while a few positioned their noses just millimeters from the marshmallow only to pull back at the last second.


Marshmallow screen shots


The “successful” kids were using these strategies to distance themselves cognitively from the present goal (eat the marshmallow in front of them) so that they can focus on the future. What an amazing lesson on delaying gratification from 5-year olds!

As Mischel sums it up in his recent book, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control (2014, page 3), the ability to delay immediate gratification is…an acquirable cognitive skill”.

Clearly, a motivating insight to apply when we go about shopping, deciding where to go for our next holiday, what car and house to buy, how much to save for our retirement and so on.

Further Reading

Marshmallow book.jpg


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