September 15, 2011
Remember the famous Stanford marshmallow study of 1972? It asked children at a campus nursery school to choose between eating a marshmallow (or a cookie or a pretzel, depending on their preference) right away or waiting while the researcher stepped out of the room for a period of time, at which point they would get two marshmallows. The purpose of the study, which involved more than 600 children, was to determine at what age we begin to develop an understanding of delayed gratification.
In follow-ups through the 1980s, data showed that the "high delayers" (the ones who held out for two marshmallows) had more social and academic success and even got higher SAT scores than their "low delaying" peers.
Recently, as if to remind us that attending a university-affiliated preschool can have lifelong ramifications, a subgroup of the participants, now in their 40s, have been evaluated once again, some with MRI brain scans.
It turns out that those who, as children, gobbled up their marshmallows at the first opportunity and then continued to have similar impulses throughout their lives showed more activity in the parts of the brain associated with pleasure. The ones who held out for two marshmallows had more activity in the prefrontal cortex, associated with impulse control. The findings were published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The original study, which has been duplicated time and again, has long been a source of public fascination. Type "Stanford marshmallow" into a Google video search and you'll find clip after clip of cute kid footage, most of it replicating almost exactly the behaviors of the subjects in the original study. (There's lots of hiding of eyes, kicking of desks and even fondling of the marshmallow as though it were a stuffed toy.)
But adorableness aside, much of the appeal of the research lies in the way it lends scientific credence to one of the great American edicts about success: There's a direct correlation between delayed gratification and positive outcome.
"Sacrifice now, benefit later" goes the mantra of upward mobility. We like to believe this ethic is what separates the college-bound student from the dropout. We like to believe it's the reason marrying young carries a greater divorce risk than marrying later. Most of all, we like to hold it up as an essential difference between the rich and the poor. Read just about any finance guru — Richard Kiyosaki, who wrote "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" to name one — and lack of impulse control among the poor emerges as a major theme.
But how good is impulse control when every segment of society — rich, poor and middle class alike — starts to delay gratification by simply not buying things? You get a stalled-out economy with seemingly no end in sight, one in which "lack of consumer demand" has been cited as a bigger problem than economic uncertainty.
Granted, it's not as simple as that, and granted, uncertainty begets diminished demand and vice versa. Still, there's something ironic about the fact that the behavior most associated with prosperity — delayed gratification — is now perpetuating our lack of it.
Does that mean that an army of "low delaying" marshmallow eaters could save the nation by hitting the malls and buying on credit? Probably not, since that's more or less what happened during the most recent real estate boom and things didn't work out too well. But it's increasingly clear that even as we shun instant-gratification seekers, even as we link them to lower achievement and buy into platitudes about rich thinking versus poor thinking, we need them. Especially the ones who are already rich.
We need them to splurge when others are saving, to take risky business ventures when the rest of us are laying low. For every Warren Buffett, who's probably hoarding marshmallows in his Omaha garage, we need a Donald Trump, who may well be constantly pumping marshmallow fluff into his veins.
And let's face it, high delayers, with their long-term successful outcomes, just don't have the stomachs for that. What the world needs now are the kids who stuffed their faces. Otherwise, it's a rocky road indeed.