Field of Science

Success in life is predetermined

ResearchBlogging.orgIf, at age four, you are good at resisting temptation, then you will do better in life than those that aren't. Give a four year old one marshmallow, tell him that if he can sit and wait to eat it until you come back, he can have another, but that if he eats it before you're back, he will only get that one. Seems like torture, and some children who Walter Mischel performed this experiment on in the sixties did kick and squirm for the 15 minutes the experimenter was gone for.

However, those that did wait the 15 minutes did not only get a second treat, but have also done better for themselves later in life on measures of social and academic success. The impatient "grabbers" has had less success academically, and they weigh more, use crack more, get divorced more, and get paid less. Needless to say, the causal factor affects both the ability to resist temptation and success in life - the marshmallow is not a blue pill. One must take care to get the causal relationship right.
Those who waited for a second marshmallow turned out to be more socially competent, self-assertive and academically successful. In their school exams, the "waiters" scored an average of 210 points more than the "grabbers". (Source.)
It find it utterly amazing that this simple experiment can be used as a predictor of success in adults. I would never have guessed that it could work, even if I acknowledged that what determines success in life is already "built" at age four. What if the kids aren't equally hungry? What if they don't like marshmallows equally much?

I honestly don't know how I would have performed at age four. My mind was on candy a lot in those days, but I think I would have performed differently had the treat been chocolate. Not that I know which way it would have changed the outcome. Would I have eaten my favorite treat instantly, or waited as long as it took to double up?

Inge-Marie Eigsti, Vivian Zayas, Walter Mischel, Yuichi Shoda, Ozlem Ayduk, Mamta B. Dadlani, Matthew C. Davidson, J. Lawrence Aber, B.J. Casey (2006). Predicting Cognitive Control From Preschool to Late Adolescence and Young Adulthood Psychological Science, 17 (6), 478-484 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01732.x

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  1. Interesting.

    We tend to regard waiting as a cost and prefer a benefit now rather than in the future. This is captured in the notion of time preference in economics and concerns the rate at which we as individuals trade-off present and future outcomes (or consumption).

    In my experience younger children tend to have a very high positive rate of time preference, valuing the present very highly and not thinking much of the future.

    There are a number of reasons why this might be the case:
    * Children are very impatient;
    * Children view the future as very uncertain - if consumption of a good is deferred it may never be enjoyed at all, e.g. the person in charge of the experiment might change his mind or not return after 15 min; and
    * Children have diminishing marginal utility - additional consumption at a later date may add less to utility than consumption now.

  2. I was going to ask why children are impatient, but I think your last two points could explain it.

    Life in our current society rewards patience, and thus the "waiters" do better. But back in time this was not always the case, and our ability to be patient probably evolved later on. In that light it is not surprising that children are nowhere as good as adults at waiting for the bigger treat, if we imagine patience evolving to set in later in development (i.e. terminal addition, which someone ought to make a wikipedia page about).

  3. Well, that's insightful. It goes to show that having a goal and being patient on waiting for it to happen is really a requirement for success.

    Anyway, I got something to chip in here about being inspired in my blog also. Hope you like it!

  4. I wouldn't even consider them correlated - the kid just had better conditions.
    I read this in a different book, it was an interesting experiment to say the least.

  5. Which kid had better conditions? Than whom?

  6. The kid with more success quite clearly.

  7. Will, isn't the premise of the study that all the children have identical conditions? In what way do you think one had better conditions? And I will don't understand 'which one' you mean.


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