Is delayed gratification a silver bullet?

Last week one of my heroes fell. Thankfully it was a fluffy one, so there was a soft landing. It’s hard to deny the benefits of delayed gratification. And Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow experiment from the ’90s made a resounding case that if there was one superpower to cultivate, this was the one.

You WILL delay

The experiment went as follows. These little tykes were given a marshmallow – and choice. Eat the marshmallow now, OR wait for 15 minutes (and as the GIF shows, using any coping means necessary) and get two. Those who were able to delay gratification tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by “SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index, and the ability to cope with frustration and stress.”


Tiger Mom Lessons

As the child of first generation immigrants, delayed gratification is my jam! And it’s served me in so many facets of my life (my career, investing, and even fitness) enabling me to compound small gains over long periods of time. I became a fervent evangelist of the superpower – in my first blog post, this newsletter, and even a draft of my book proposal where I wrote:

“I also discovered a formula few of my peers knew, particularly at such a young age: combining my capacity for suffering with delayed gratification would yield exponential growth. This enabled me to crush the Marshmallow Test.”

But the Marshmallow Test didn’t hold up under replication.

The claims are, well, fluffy

Last week, three scholars (Tyler Watts, Greg Duncan, and Hoanan Quen) published a paper in which they tried and largely failed to replicate the earlier research. Sparing you the details (but you absolutely should read the paper), they found that “associations between delay time and measures of behavioral outcomes at age 15 were much smaller and rarely statistically significant.” Watts told The Guardian, “If you are the parent of a four-year-old, and they reach for the marshmallow without waiting, you should not be too concerned.” (There are also interesting findings about how socio-economic standing and home parenting play a role in a child’s ability to delay gratification.)

So where does that leave us? Do you throw out the marshmallows with the marshmallow water? It would seem foolish to deny the intuitive value of delayed gratification, but we should remember that complex questions of human behavior will always have extremely nuanced results (i.e. this Twitter thread on the recent study).

Sapiens ❤ Stories

As a Sapien, stories and crisp narratives are extremely seductive. And sometimes, these theories (power poses or positivity ratios) can be incomplete or even wrong. I feel remorse for yelling about Marshmallows on rooftops and it’s a personal reminder to be vigilant about everything I read. As seductive as these theories may be, we’re highly unlikely to find grand unifying theories for the things in life that matter the most to us: love, work, and happiness.

So with that said, I’m going to eat some s’mores for breakfast.

Editor’s Note: I’d encourage readers to further explore how the conclusion is less about delayed gratification and more about poverty and wealth’s impact on one’s ability to delay gratification. RadReader Adam Grant recommended this response from Behavioral Scientist.

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