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The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, Delayed Gratification and more

Image: The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from the Ghostbusters movie, 1984

The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, Delayed Gratification and more

In June this year, Jessica Calarco wrote a very interesting article around the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment from the 1960s, which were a number of studies conducted by psychologist Walter Mischel. Mischel was studying correlation between children who displayed delayed gratification and how their subsequent lives turned out to be as they grew up. The studies found that some children could hold off the instant satisfaction in exchange of a delayed but larger gain. Tracking them over several years, it also stated that such children had better life outcomes later in life. These outcomes were gauged using several parameters. Some of these were educational accomplishments, SAT scores, body mass index, among others.

Some subsequent studies tried to disprove this correlation. One of them, mentioned in the article, is a more recent one. Researchers Tyler Watts (NYU) and Greg Duncan and Hoanan Quan (both of UC Irvine) conducted it. Little was found to support the original correlation. The study comprised of a larger sample size (900 as opposed to 600 in the first of the Stanford experiments). One finding was that socio-economic factors also played a role in whether a kid could wait it out or not.

They found kids from affluent families were more inclined and able to wait for the extra marshmallow. Kids from poor families were inclined to take the first marshmallow. They were more inclined to grab something at hand, rather than wait for the uncertain.

A couple of thoughts around this new experiment:

  • Firstly, the phrase ‘did no better’ is debatable. Several groups over time have written off the marshmallow experiment. I think it still has potential. We just need to figure out what data to capture. Doesn’t mean the experiment has no merit
  • I believe the marshmallow experiment, or delayed gratification in particular, is about willpower. And that need not always translate to financial success. People capable of delayed gratification might be more attuned to pursue more challenging pursuits as opposed to easy money
  • Based on examples around us, I suppose both scenarios are possible (rich kids giving in quickly, poor kids waiting it out, and vice versa). However, I think the sharpest growth in achieving potential is more dramatic in poor kids (who perhaps can delay gratification). Consider the small example of America’s leading entrepreneurs who came from immigrant families with humble beginnings

A kid with more grit might be more inclined to choose more worthy and challenging life goals, as opposed to chasing mindless pursuits. Therefore, they might not all be runaway financial successes, but as individuals, there would certainly be that x-factor in them. This factor might be missing in those who might have chosen instant gratification instead.

Kids from an economically poor background surely have far more challenges to achieve something. The few that do, have far more hunger and grit than many affluent kids growing up.

Therefore, while I still think the Marshmallow test is relevant, perhaps proportioning the delay time by economic wellness might give a more clear picture and handle on predicting future outcomes, as opposed to having the same 15 minute incentive for kids across economic strata.

Image: source


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