It is not uncommon to hear of the “rags to riches story” of the successful entrepreneur who says something to the nature of, “Hard work always pays off. If you’re patient and do what you’re supposed to, life will pay you what you deserve. Anyone can do it.” While the question of whether or not life will give you what you deserve will likely be debated until the end of time, a new study calls into question the idea that “anyone can do it.”
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Walter Mischel, a psychology researcher at Stanford University, conducted a series of studies on delayed gratification in children. In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward (a marshmallow) provided immediately or two small rewards (two marshmallows) if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which time, the tester left the room and later returned.
Of the over 600 children who took part in the experiment, a minority ate the marshmallow immediately. Of those who attempted to delay eating the marshmallow, one third deferred gratification long enough to receive the second marshmallow. One early conclusion Mischel noted was that while the age of the child was the primary determinant of whether or not the child deferred gratification, within each age group there appeared to be “dispositions” that seemed more capable of delaying gratification than others.
Mischel kept in contact with the majority of the 600 children who participated in his study through the years, sending them yearly questionnaires and regularly interviewing their parents about their progress in school, sports, and other social activities. In 1990, over fifteen years after his initial study, Mischel began to quantitatively measure and compare the social and academic outcomes of the children who delayed gratification for the 15-minute interval with those children who did not. Remarkably, those participants who delayed gratification when they were young children had markedly higher SAT scores some fifteen years later than those children who did not wait. Even more surprising, there was a strong, almost dose-dependent, correlation between how long the child was willing to wait (i.e. delay gratification), and how high their SAT scores were.
In 2011, Mischel conducted a brain imaging study of a sample of the original Stanford participants when they reached mid-life. Again, there were significant differences between those who did and did not delay gratification some forty years previous. The prefrontal cortex (a part of the brain involved in some aspects of decision making) and the ventral striatum (an area often associated with addictions) were markedly different in the two groups. Those who delayed gratification had much more robust neural networks in their prefrontal cortex than those who did not delay gratification. The opposite was true of the neural networks of the ventral striatum in the two groups. Amazingly, the group that did not delay gratification had three times the incidence of substance abuse than those children who did, and those who couldn’t wait earned on average 63% less a year than their more patient counterparts.
For many, Mischel’s research appears to demonstrate that there are deeply biological reasons for why some of us are able to delay gratification more than others. With that said, there are Mischel’s detractors who argue that his failure to account for the socioeconomic status of the families from which these children came completely negates his research as socioeconomic status is directly correlated with health, educational, and financial outcomes later in life. They argue that the causes are not rooted in biology but rather sociology.
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