In 1990, psychologist Walter Michel’s and his team released a landmark study into delayed gratification.
They offered kids a single marshmallow now, or two marshmallows later if they could resist temptation for 20 minutes. They found that the children who could wait were more likely to be successful later in life. They had higher test scores on the SAT, lower divorce rates, higher incomes, lower body mass indexes, and fewer behavioral problems as adults.
Today, if you go to YouTube and search for “The Marshmallow Test” you will find thousands of videos in which parents test their children to see if they can wait for the marshmallow. It’s understandable, because throughout the early 2000s, a slew of TED talks, popular books, and viral articles suggested that you could use the test to portend your child’s chances at reaching their life goals — and its fun and easy and you can eat all the extra marshmallows.
The marshmallow test is now one of the most well-known studies in all of psychology, right up there with the Milgram shock experiments and the Stanford prison experiment, but a new replication suggests we’ve been learning the wrong lesson from its findings for decades.
In this episode, we sit down with Tyler Watts, who researches early childhood development. According to his team’s research, the marshmallow test is still important and insightful, but an expanded replication shows the ability to delay gratification at 4-years old isn’t nearly as strong a predictor of later success as socio-economic status. In fact, it was socio-economic status all along that affected children’s ability to wait for the marshmallow.
These findings have huge implications for education, because many schools teach delayed gratification strategies to young children in the hopes of affecting their later success. According to Watts, those efforts aren’t likely to produce large effects, and what effects they do produce will be overwhelmed by the psychological impact of poverty and the environments it produces.
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