It pays to wait for the second marshmallow

If you promise a second marshmallow to preschoolers who wait before eating the first, about 30 percent will wait 15 minutes, according to an experiment conducted in the ’60s. The rest can’t control their impulses long enough to get the second marshmallow.  The ability to delay gratification predicts success in high school and later life, reports the New Yorker.

Once (Stanford Psychology Professor Walter) Mischel began analyzing the results, he noticed that low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.

Researchers are following up with early and late marshmallow eaters, who are now in their 40s. Some will take MRIs to see if there are differences in the brain.

Researchers also are planning to study whether schoolchildren can be taught self-control skills that will persist when the marshmallows are all gone and children are trying to decide between homework and TV.

The lead researcher, Angela Lee Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, was a high-school math teacher frustrated by students with no self-control.  As a psychologist, she “found that the ability to delay gratification— eighth graders were given a choice between a dollar right away or two dollars the following week — was a far better predictor of academic performance than I.Q.”

David Levin, the co-founder of KIPP charter schools, asked Mischel and Duckworth to study KIPP’s program to teach self-control.

Self-control is one of the fundamental “character strengths” emphasized by KIPP — the KIPP academy in Philadelphia, for instance, gives its students a shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Don’t Eat the Marshmallow.”

Duckworth will analyze self-control mastery at KIPP schools, as well as at a private school, a school for gifted children and Mastery Charter Schools, in Philadelphia.

In the short run, students taught mental tricks can lengthen their delay time. But it takes practice to perfect self-discipline. “This is where your parents are important,” Mischel says.

According to Mischel, even the most mundane routines of childhood — such as not snacking before dinner, or saving up your allowance, or holding out until Christmas morning — are really sly exercises in cognitive training: we’re teaching ourselves how to think so that we can outsmart our desires.

Here’s a gadget — the Study Ball — that forces students to stick to their books.

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  1. The concept of self-control and delayed gratification relates directly to the recent posts on this site about illegitimacy and about disruptive kids in school; too little self-control leads to bad outcomes. This is why most of the people at the bottom of the SES heap are there; they consistently run on impulse and make bad decisions. Their problems are not caused by poverty; their own behaviors cause poverty.

  2. Roger Sweeny says:

    In 1968, Edward Banfield published “The Unheavenly City,” which began, “This book will probably strike many readers as the work of an ill-tempered and mean-spirited fellow.” Banfield argued that the major determinant of poverty was “short time horizon.” People who planned ahead and deferred gratification did well. People who didn’t, didn’t. Because of that, he predicted that the urban programs and anti-poverty programs of the time would not be very successful. The book made quite a splash, though respectable opinion was that he was unduly negative and basically wrong.

    Forty-one (!) years on, his prediction is holding up pretty well. And this research provides evidence that his basic idea was right.

  3. Diana Senechal says:

    In 1935 (and earlier), Michael John Demiashkevich criticized the progressives’ one-sided emphasis on immediacy and student interest: “Preoccupation with the immediate is, indeed, one of the natural tendencies of mankind. Like nearly all other natural tendencies, it must be corrected by training; it must be pruned and guided if it is to yield all the good of which it can be the source.” (Demiashkevich, An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, 1935, p. 316).

    He did not discount the importance or appeal of immediate experience. Rather, he said that in order to enjoy the full fruits of the immediate, students need to learn to control their impulses. There is no value in the spontaneous pursuit of an interest if a student has no ability to stick with it or focus on it.

    Many of our schools encourage the students to be shifty and impulsive–by promoting “initiative, autonomy, and choice” before the students are ready for it; by changing activities every few minutes; by having students continually shift seats, “turn and talk,” and otherwise refrain from stillness; and by mandating a kind of groupwork that keeps the classrooms in a state of perpetual buzz. Teachers are also told that they must grab the students attention right away with a “motivation”–as though it were too much to ask of the students to take in the lesson on its own terms.

    We do not have to make learning tedious or dull–but ironically, all this stimulus creates its own form of dullness.

  4. From the article:

    “Mischel is particularly excited by the example of the substantial subset of people who failed the marshmallow task as four-year-olds but ended up becoming high-delaying adults. “This is the group I’m most interested in,” he says. “They have substantially improved their lives.””

    Given the preschool was associated with Stanford maybe this result is not so surprising. But it does seem to direct the focus away from the individual and to the power of culture.

  5. Well, just think about what in this life takes planning and delayed gratification: Any diploma, degree, or certification; a good career (i.e., working your way up the ladder, etc.); a good love life (i.e., you won’t win the heart of the woman of your dreams overnight, etc.); a good family life, and so on.

    If you can’t plan ahead and wait for your gratification, you take the first thing that comes along. The first job, the first mate, the first home up for sale. These permanantly impulsive people have no concept of “what’s best for them”; all they know is that they want, *now*, and an option is before them, *now*. Never mind that it may be a horrible option. These are the people that don’t think about the present, much less the future!

  6. Read the article. Loved the article. Was a little frustrated at the lack of specificity when it came down to describing how to directly instruct kids in delayed gratification. What are the “mental tricks” that Mischel keeps referring to?
    If “x” is a predictor of “y”, (“x” being the ability to delay gratification), then HOW do we teach kids “x”?

  7. Here’s some of the “tricks” that were used by the children who delayed gratification:

    “Mischel’s conclusion, based on hundreds of hours of observation, was that the crucial skill was the “strategic allocation of attention.” Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow—the “hot stimulus”—the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from “Sesame Street.” Their desire wasn’t defeated—it was merely forgotten. “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.””

  8. The ability to delay gratification has long been written about as a predictor of both educational and eventual career success – and it makes perfect sense to me. I was discussing this with my honors English students the other day – they have a lifestyle in terms of academics that is very much related to delayed gratification. The avoid the urge to cut class or blow off an assignment based on the long term expectation of a better education, a better career, and, subsequently, a better life – and then, of course, they can relax and reward themselves now.

    I told them they will delay cutting class to go to Jamba Juice on the expectation that they don’t want to end up working at Jamba Juice but would rather own a Jamba Juice or be successful enough to go to Jamba Juice any time they want when they are older.

    It makes a lot of sense.

  9. To clarify my post above, when I said that poor self-control and bad decision-making are characteristic of those a the bottom of the SES ladder, I was referring to those who remain at the bottom; the underclass. There are many who start at the bottom, but become successful; they make good decisions and take advantage of opportunities.

    It’s a pity that schools have stopped stressing self-control, planning for the future, good speech and manners, hard work and all of those aspects of the Puritain/Protestant work ethic that were part of education (both public and private) for most of our history. Training kids in the habits and behaviors for success has been abandoned in the name of “cultural sensitivity” or something equally silly. I remember reading a statement from the Seattle Public School District that teaching/expecting standard English and planning for the future (among other desirable behaviors) was cultural oppression; to be avoided at all costs. Then they wonder why so many kids aren’t doing well… it’s not as if the kids from the underclass will be taught those desirable habits at home.

  10. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I hesitate to bring this up…. but the raw ability to delay gratification could be a species-level advancement.

    It could represent the next major break between divisions of human being.

    But then again, so could some sort of reduced tendency towards violence.

    Still, it’s interesting to think about.

  11. When I was studying to be a Master Gardener, I had to work with community service types to install gardens at homeless centers, inner city day care centers, etc. Both places had participants who were very enthusiastic at first, grew bored with the routine taskes, and could not wait for the seeds to sprout and grow. Little kids regularly picked up the radish sprouts, hoping for big radishes after a week. And so did grown men and women.

  12. But upon reading the actual piece, I wonder if maybe what it really shows is that good little children who follow the rules get rewarded by society.

    Carolyn, the little girl who waited, has a nice job in academia, which is perfect for someone who can follow rules. Her brother, works in film which is a far more risky business, where following the “rules” is impossible, because there aren’t any.

    The author makes it sound like Craig’s some loser, but he’s had a pretty steady career, if you check his IMDB.

    And while Carolyn has fancy-schmancy degrees from Sanford and Princeton, her brother got an MFA from USC.

    So, I’m not so sure about the conclusions drawn, at least about these two examples. Are little boys more impulsive, or are they bolder about taking what they want? Do little girls learn early to please authority figures by doing what they’re told?

    I’ll bet Carolyn picked up on what the interviewer wanted her to do, so she did it.

  13. Quoth momof4:

    It’s a pity that schools have stopped stressing self-control, planning for the future….

    Here’s the old Seattle school document stating that having a future time orientation is an example of cultural racism!  (Note that the controversy over this definition has caused the page to be pulled, but it’s still there at the Wayback Machine.)

    That such nonsense was ever part of policy in a public school system is an outrage; that the people who wrote and accepted it are probably still on the payroll is an obscenity.

  14. Sorry, missed a quote in the link.  Here it is, properly this time.

  15. That the entire article could never mention race or intellectual ability and still be taken seriously is flamboozling.

  16. “I hesitate to bring this up… but the raw ability to delay gratification could be a species-level advancement.”

    It already has been. It’s pretty well documented that one of the big psychological differences between chimps and humans is impulse control. I just recently watched a documentary that showed something very similar to the marshmallow experiment, comparing adult chimps and young humans.

    As for teaching impulse control, what happens when you consistently push children to defer gratification, but never supply the reward?

  17. [continued] …or the gratification invariably turns out to be empty or purely symbolic? Wouldn’t this instead tend to undermine impulse control?

  18. greifer says:

    For many parents, they can’t teach delayed gratification because they can’t hold out against their kids. Who has the stamina to say no to a 3 yr old? How often nowadays do parents give in because they would rather have the happy child now than the tantruming toddler or sulky teen? If the parents or parent is also overtired, overworked, etc. their own executive function is diminished. Parenting done right delays gratification for a decade or more…

    Many high performing high schoolers get to college and find out that all of that delayed gratification was for naught, or the gratification is empty. They tend to turn to instant gratification with a vengeance, be it liquor or drugs, sex, etc. I don’t agree that most young adults are purposely delaying gratification in college; more, their peer group has social mores that keep them from ditching class or punting assignments This is evidenced by large groups of college kids who do act in these ways–punting class, skipping assignments. You don’t make it to a top 4 yr university with skills in delaying gratification, so you can assume most students have the ability to do it. But culturally, they need it reinforced for them to still behave this way.

  19. greifer, no dispute with what you’re saying, but I wasn’t really talking about college-age kids.

  20. Physics Teacher says:

    When my I first arrived at this gig I was told by my boss that I need to mix things around every 15 minutes because kids these days have short attention spans and get bored easily.

    Blame for the short attention spans, of course, was thrown on iPods and other devices. The schools and their guiding philosopies, philosophies in which all these kids had been immersed for over a decade, were never listed among the suspects.

  21. Makes me think of a friend of mine from school with 9 brothers & sisters. She always joked that in her home if you closed your eyes during grace before dinner when you opened them your share of meat & potatoes would be missing or quite reduced.

    I’ve observed that in group activities my daughter (who is an only child at home)will often wait to get her share of snack, craft supplies etc.. when they are being passed out. Other kids rush to front & grab. Often she can come up with the short end of the stick when it comes to getting her choice or share of something.

  22. Angie Duckworth visited GreatSchools HQ a couple weeks ago to talk about her latest research studies with KIPP and Teach for America. You can read about it here: