In the late 1960s, Stanford researchers ran a series of studies on delayed gratification, offering children a choice between a small reward immediately or a better reward if they waited fifteen minutes for the researcher to leave the testing room and return. In follow-up studies, the famous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment found that children who were able to wait longer for a reward tended to have better life outcomes as assessed by SAT scores, educational attainment, and other measures.
A new replication study of the marshmallow test by Tyler W. Watts, a post doctoral research scientist in the Department of Applied Psychology, suggests that being able to delay gratification at a young age may not be as predictive of later life outcomes as was previously thought.
Published in Psychological Science, Watt’s study discovered that while the ability to resist temptation and wait longer to eat the marshmallow did predict adolescent math and reading skills, the association was small and disappeared after the researchers controlled for characteristics of the child’s family and early environment. They also found no indication that delaying immediate gratification predicted later behaviors or measures of personality. The authors concluded that interventions focused only on teaching young children to delay gratification are likely to be ineffective.
“Our findings suggest that an intervention that alters a child’s ability to delay, but fails to change more general cognitive and behavioral capacities, will probably have very small effects on later outcomes,” Watts said. “If intervention developers hope to generate the kinds of improvements associated with the original marshmallow study, it is likely to be more fruitful to target the broader cognitive and behavioral abilities related to gratification delay.”