Why Willpower Doesn't Predict Your Success

This week we discuss the truth about the Marshmallow Test, delayed gratification, will power and success. Did anyone else's parents talk to them constantly about instant vs delayed gratification? That was just me? Explains a lot.

AIRED: October 24, 2018 | 0:04:11

So when I was a kid on family road trips, my Mum would keep a bag of lollies in the

front seat with her.

And when I’d ask for one – she would make me practice “delaying gratification.”

So instead of giving me and my brother one now, she’d make us wait until the next town

and then she'd give us two.

Now, this wasn’t just because parents are mean when it comes to road trip snacking.

She genuinely believed that kids who practice self control grow up to be more successful


This idea is based on a classic psychology study – but now this study is in some hot

water because it can't be replicated.

So is there truth to the benefits of delayed gratification?

It all started with a study called the “Marshmallow Test.”

In the late 1960s, Professor Walter Mischel at Stanford University ran an experiment where

he gave preschool kids a treat, in this case a marshmallow, and told them that if they

waited 15 minutes until he got back to eat it, they’d get a second one.

Then he’d leave the room.

Some kids waited the full 15 minutes and got two marshmallows, and some kids ate theirs

before he returned.

The study checked back in with these kids years later to see how they did academically,

socially, and professionally.

What Mischel saw in follow-up studies was that kids who were able to delay gratification

were described as more competent teenagers and had higher SAT scores.

The public went a little nuts.

And it wasn’t just my Mum, lots of parents heard about this study.

People were fascinated by the idea that a single skill: the ability to exercise will

power and delay gratification, could predict how successful their preschooler would be

later in life.

But, as always, we’re right to be a little skeptical.

So this study tracked 90 children, all of which were enrolled in the preschool at Stanford


What would happen in a different setting?

To find out, another group of researchers recreated the study with over 900 kids from

a wide range of social, cultural, and family backgrounds.

They also looked at other possible explanations for both a child’s ability to delay gratification,

and for their future success.

No one doubted that preschool willpower and adult success were linked, but... was early

willpower the only cause of this success?

What they found was that things like family income and home environment better explained

if kids displayed willpower and then if kids were more successful later in their life.

For example, in homes where the mother had a college degree, whether or not the child

waited for a second marshmallow was completely unrelated to how they did in the long run.

In homes where mothers didn’t have a college degree, the family’s income and home environment

seemed to determine both how long a child waited, and how well they did down the line.

If a kid struggles with food insecurity at home, it’s understandable both that they’d

eat the marshmallow without waiting, and that they’d have more difficulties as they got


People thought that the marshmallow study was a groundbreaking piece of evidence that

displaying self-control early in life would lead to a brighter future, but underlying

the study was human error.

You had a group of upper middle class researchers working with upper middle class subject and

the results couldn’t be replicated for kids from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

What it really shows is how our early childhood environment can impact both our behaviour

and our potential.

And looking beyond a single skill like self-control, things like creating a nurturing learning

environment, having academic materials and role models can all help to set up all kids

for success.

Success comes from a variety of influences, and one way that we can better understand

it is to have researchers from all different backgrounds and location collaborating and

working together.

That’s how we get better science, and it's also how we can all convince my Mum that I

should be able to have marshmallows whenever I like.

Thank you to Chevron for supporting this episode.

Chevron focuses on improving instruction in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and

Mathematics) as well as providing career and technical training that can lead to well-paying


To learn more, you can head to



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