Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok at Marginal Revolution tell us that “this dog will go far”:
I assume Cowen and Tabarrok were referring to the 1960s marshmallow studies that have some very interesting follow-up data.
The Original Experiment
Almost 50 years ago, at Stanford’s Bing Nursery School, psychologist Walter Mischel began studying delayed gratification by giving young children a choice. He or one of his assistants first asked the children to choose among a selection of sweets including marshmallows, Oreos and bars of chocolate. Then, placed alone in a small room, each child sat at a table that had three marshmallows, three Oreos, or whatever had been selected (two in one corner of the desk and one at the other side) and a bell. The child was told that he or she could eat one treat after ringing a bell that would bring the adult back into the room or the two treats by waiting until the adult returned.
After testing more than 550 children, Mischel’s data indicated that at 4 years old, certain children can resist temptation. Some could last 20 minutes while others capitulated immediately. The average resistance time was seven or eight minutes.
The Mischel Follow-Up
In years of follow-up studies, Mischel discovered that the SAT scores of children who held out for 15 or 20 minutes were 210 points higher than those who lasted only 30 seconds. Returning to the same people 40 years later, he found that the high delayers had better jobs, more income, and coped better with frustration and stress. Among the group that ate the sweet immediately, obesity, addiction and jail time were more likely.
The Value of Delayed Gratification
Now, a 2013 paper from the University of Chicago and the Chinese University of Hong Kong suggests that waiting can make people feel an item is more valuable. Essentially, the researchers describe a feedback web. If waiting for something makes someone feel it is worth more, then that person is willing to display even more patience. As wait time grows, so too does the perception of value. The result? The very act of delaying gratification enables us to wait for a larger reward.
In one experiment from the Chicago/Hong Kong study, participants could choose between a “sooner-smaller” or a “larger-later” reward. Shown by the following results, the most participants postponed gratification when they had already waited part of the requisite time.
Our Bottom Line: Policy Implications
The implications of delayed gratification take us to early childhood education and retirement saving. As a topic for public policy formation, perhaps we want to help children develop the ability to delay gratification and adults the willingness to save more for retirement.
Not precisely what Mischel did but similar: