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Wow, Patience Really Is A Virtue…

May 27th, 2009 · 8 Comments
Behavioral Econ · Decision Making

I was recently reminded of the marshmallow experiment during a conversation with a friend of mine, and I figured it was interesting enough to share with you. The link above is a little sensationalized, but gets across the main idea of the study as follows:

“Stanford University psychology researcher Michael Mischel demonstrated how important self-discipline (the ability to delay immediate gratifiction in exchange for long term goal achievement) is to lifelong success. In a longitudinal study which began in the 1960s, he offered hungry 4-year-olds a marshmallow, but told them that if they could wait for the experimenter to return after running an errand, they could have two marshmallows.

Those who could wait the fifteen or twenty minutes for the experimenter to return would be demonstrating the ability to delay gratification and control impulse. About one-third of of the children grabbed the single marshmallow right away while some waited a little longer, and about one-third were able to wait 15 or 20 minutes for the researcher to return.

Years later when the children graduated from high school, the differences between the two groups were dramatic: the resisters were more positive, self-motivating, persistent in the face of difficulties, and able to delay gratification in pursuit of their goals. They had the habits of successful people which resulted in more successful marriages, higher incomes, greater career satisfaction, better health, and more fulfilling lives than most of the population.

Those having grabbed the marshmallow were more troubled, stubborn and indecisive, mistrustful, less self-confident, and still could not put off gratification. They had trouble subordinating immediate impulses to achieve long-range goals. When it was time to study for the big test, they tended to get distracted into doing activities that brought instant gratifciation This impulse followed them throughout their lives and resulted in unsucessful marriages, low job satisfaction and income, bad health, and frustrating lives. “

Now, I have yet to go back and see whether the authors accounted for this, but I see a number of reasons other than self-discipline as to why some children would wait for the second marshmallow and others wouldn’t.

  • Maybe some of the children just don’t like marshmallows that much and thus aren’t as tempted- I have a friend that doesn’t like french fries, and I am very jealous of him, for example. Perhaps the students that aren’t enthralled by sugary goodness were the ones that paid attention rather than running around the classroom on a sugar high when they were little.
  • Maybe some of the children only wanted one marshmallow, and therefore might as well have it sooner rather than later.
  • Maybe some of the children were more optimistic about when the researcher would come back- from what I can remember, the time frame was not given to the kids, so those that were pessimistic and convinced that they were going to be abandoned forever ate the marshmallow whereas those that thought the researcher was just going out to pee or something were happy to wait. In this case, optimism leads to “better” outcomes. There’s a life less in there somewhere kids…

Despite the alternative explanations, I do believe that there is something to be said for the conclusion of the study as stated, and it does seem as though patient and thoughtful people win out in the long run, at least on average. The relevant question then, if we want people to be well-equipped to make “good” choices, is how does one teach patience? Furthermore, if we can’t teach patience, are there incentives that can substitute for patience? (Look for a follow up post on paying kids to get good grades, for example.)

On a tangential note, a friend sent me an article about Grag Mankiw’s assessment of Sonia Sotomayor being a spender rather than a saver that I found pretty amusing. Maybe Greg Mankiw, as a tenured professor and thus having the near ultimate in job security, is inefficiently oversaving….hmmm.

Tags: Behavioral Econ · Decision Making

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Prefers Peeps // May 27, 2009 at 2:04 pm

    Jonah Leher treats the experiment to a New Yorker profile a couple weeks ago. He gets at the “delaying tactics” the successful (non-eating) subjects used, and how those same tendencies showed up as a tool toward later successes. I think there’s a great question in looking for incentives “substituting for” patience, though Patience, the Virtue, seems rather feeble. Even in impatient people perhaps a tool toward greater problem solving capacity (by blocking out distracting impulses, prioritizing the problem at hand) is an incentive in itself.

  • 2 Dan L // May 27, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    Nice critical thinking. (Although your first two alternative hypotheses do not seem plausible, it’s always fun to think outside the box).

    But I’m really commenting to thank you for that 538 link, which made me happy. As I was saying before, Greg Mankiw is a total dbag.

  • 3 econgirl // May 27, 2009 at 2:46 pm

    I would argue that the first is plausible, but I think that that is because I don’t really care for marshmallows. That said, I might also just eat the first marshmallow because I don’t care whether I get a second, so it’s unclear which direction that effect would go. I suppose if it was implied that I was “supposed” to wait, then I would wait. (I’ve never had a twinkie either.)

    I think the New Yorker article points out that the children were allowed to choose what snack they wanted, thus increasing the chance that they actively liked what they were being taunted with.

  • 4 econgirl // May 27, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    And you are probably killing any chance of Greg ever linking to my site. Thanks. =P (kidding- I don’t ever plan on asking, though I do know that he knows that it exists, since we’ve had a conversation about it. He’s more pleasant in person, and I appreciate that he is passionate about everyone understanding at least the basic principles of economics.)

  • 5 Dan L // May 28, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    1. I say that the first hypothesis does not seem plausible because there is no reason to suspect any correlation between marshmallow preference and success in life. (Your bit about the “sugar high” affecting classroom performance is not a serious hypothesis, especially since there is no such thing as a “sugar high.” Maybe you could try juvenile diabetes, but still, there’s just no way this could lead to a robust correlation.)

    2. So… you just implied that Greg Mankiw might not want to link to your site because someone here posts negative comments about him… Yeah, sounds like a wonderful man. 😉

    (Yes, I know that your comment was tongue-in-cheek.) In any case, you don’t want to be linked by Mankiw. Your blog would then become extremely popular, and tons of random people (many of them idiots) will start reading it and commenting on it, and inevitably, insulting you. There would also be insane pressure on you to write great posts.

  • 6 Tom // Jun 3, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    what difference would an increase in pressure cause when she already writes great posts?

  • 7 Matt // Jun 13, 2009 at 4:33 am

    Two additional items came to mind about the results:

    -The children that did not take the marshmallow might have believed that the option to take/not take was a rule, rather than a trade-off, if they were indeed more succesful later in life, it could be that they follow the rules more often, pushing them towards social standards, and thus making them seem more successful.

    -The kids are FOUR! I see it as being quite possible that they didn’t understand there was a tradeoff.

  • 8 Tom // Jun 13, 2009 at 7:49 am

    was there an additional item that came to mind, becuse those both seemed like the same point?

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