HomedisciplineThe Marshmallow Test: A Look At Delayed Gratification

The Marshmallow Test: A Look At Delayed Gratification

This guest post is from The Digerati Life, a personal finance site. You should check it out, ’cause it’s one of the most read personal finance sites on the interwebz.


In the 1960’s, an experiment involving a marshmallow and a child was conducted. In this experiment, a child was led to an experiment room, where a marshmallow was on the table. The child was told that the researcher would be out for a while, and if the child could wait for him to come back, he’d give him another marshmallow as a reward. But if the child decides to eat the marshmallow, he only needs to ring a bell and the researcher would return. In the event that the child rings the bell, the researcher won’t reward the child with another marshmallow.

This was the famous Marshmallow Test. The results of this test reported that those children who were able to resist the marshmallow and wait for 15 whole minutes for the researcher to come back tended to do better in school. The kids who were capable of waiting eventually ended up with SAT scores that were, on average, 210 points higher than those of kids who could not wait. The follow-up studies of the children who participated in the experiment showed how they eventually dealt with life. The kids who had greater patience appeared to have more focus and drive compared with the kids who were less patient.

This experiment became one of the most important studies on delaying gratification. Apparently, the ability to delay gratification is one necessary tool for success. The ability to put off one’s desires allows someone to work in a focused manner towards his or her goals. Distractions abound, but if one is able to control their impulses, he or she will be able to stay on track.

“So, what’s in this for me?” you may ask. Well, think of it this way. Has it been too easy for you to turn to your Mastercard credit card when you’re faced with a purchase? For instance, you may feel the urge to buy a new Gucci bag. Or worse, you may decide that it’s time to trade in your car. If you’ve got $4,000 in credit card payments to go, plus a $20,000 mortgage, then a new car purchase at this very moment could prove disastrous for your budget. So should you put off purchasing a new car or succumb to financing? Sure, you could try to get a personal loan here and there, get cash advances on your card, then pay in cash. But is that sensible?

A person who can delay gratification will typically wait until the debts are paid and the bills are addressed before he gets the car. He may figure that once the problems are gone, owning a car could be justified. Maybe he’ll even start a savings account for a car purchase as he pays off the bills. That way, he could kill two birds with one stone: get out of debt, while saving for what he wants.

On the other hand, a person who can’t wait, may do everything he can to get the car: apply for loans, pile the purchase on his credit card bills, possibly even borrow money from friends and relatives. Truly a recipe for disaster.

If you see yourself in the person who can’t seem to defer gratification, then don’t despair. Don’t think that this behavior is hard-wired. It’s something you can unlearn with a little bit of work. Here are our suggestions on how to beat this behavior:

  1. Make a list of those things that you believe show your inability to delay gratification. Work on unlearning one habit a month. If, for example, you tend to buy donuts on your way home from work, but you know that you really don’t need the extra calories, then scrap this habit. If you feel the need for munchies, then start buying organic fruits and vegetables instead.
  2. As you work towards beating one bad habit a month, make sure that you chart your progress. Use a to-do list to mark off the habits you’ve started to overcome. And as you make progress on changing your habits, reward yourself with little, inexpensive treats. Rewards for good behavior could include a book, a sinful treat you’ve done without for the past month, or even just taking an hour off of work and chores to enjoy the sunset. “Simple” and “affordable” are our bywords for these treats.
  3. As you make adjustments on your spending and self-indulgent habits, surely you should be able to save. Start a new account at your local bank or a top online savings bank like the Sallie Mae Bank. This way, you’ll be able to save for your major purchases; like that car, for example.

A person’s lack of impulse control should not determine his or her financial destiny. We believe that a person can and will be able to change. The first step is admitting that one needs to change. The second step is to figure out how to change. Then following through and working hard to be consistent with these changes should lead you to success. We can do this!

Ninja’s Questions: In what areas of your life do you struggle to delay gratification? What about areas that you can easily delay? Do you know anyone that has put themselves in a bad situation because of impulse purchasing? I personally am a sucker for electronics, if it’s shiny and new…I want it, and I want it NOW!

p.s. The winner for the T-shirt give away is….TRINA!!!! I’m a little disappointed right now because Trina has emailed me a handful of times, and I’ve learned she is a Washington State University Cougar fan… I hate the cougs. Im a Husky kind of guy (UW). But the Random Number Generator sought mercy on a Coug I guess. Congrats Trina! The proof….

winner winner chicken dinner

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  1. Oh you never said it was going to be random… I assumed it was by quality of submission. Shucks. Guess I’ll just have to go buy my own… next month…

  2. I totally missed the giveaway note. Darn.

    I can resist spending way easier than I can resist food. I think it’s because it’s pretty easy to go cold turkey on non-essential spending, but you have to eat several times a day to survive. The opportunity for excess spending is way lower. Perhaps if I worked in a mall, it would be different. My MIL quit Kohl’s because she said her entire paycheck got spent there because she was always finding deals.

    I do eat less when I’m super busy..again less opportunities to snack. It annoys me that the same part of my brain that controls money can’t control my caloric intake.

  3. I think I remember hearing about the marshmallow test during a college Psych 101 class. Interesting stuff.

  4. We did this with my son when he was little and used M&Ms. He actually waited. We will see how he does on his SAT in a few months….

    Impulsiveness is the bane of this nation’s economy. People always think they deserve this or that because they got up in the morning.

  5. Definitely not what I was expecting when I read a study about “delaying gratification”

    Good stuff though.

  6. I’m pretty good at delaying gratification. When I was a kid, I’d push all the great stuff on my plate aside and eat the not so tasty stuff first.

    Then I’d savour the great parts at the end. 🙂

    I do that today. I hoard all the best candies and chocolates I love, eat the rest (with nuts or raisins) that I hate, and savour the rest.

    I guess I’ve always had an ability to be disciplined and to ‘deny’ myself innate, I just never activated it until I was in debt. 😛 Like a robot.

  7. Yahoo! Something exciting was bound to happen to me today…it is my due date, and so far, this babe is in no hurry to get here. Thanks for the shirt!! You gotta admit, us Cougs can be pretty lucky sometimes (I mean we have won the Apple Cup 30 times in the past century;).
    As for your questions, I am a sucker for going out to eat. After making breakfast, lunch and snacks at home all day for the kids, anytime I don’t have to cook dinner is a good night. On the other hand, I have no problem not even taking my wallet on a trip to the mall. Shopping for sport is not my thing. We had a friend, a realtor, get himself into a load of trouble buying 3 homes in 2 years just before the bubble burst (it happens to the best of us) thinking that he was going to get a big profit flipping them. It was hard watching him try to get out of that. Especially because he also got a new car, truck and boat in that time frame too…

    • Thanks again. I just ordered a muy grande shirt for my dad…he’s a senior econ teacher. So the message will get to a lot of kids!
      Great giveaway Ninja!

  8. Electronics tend to be my downfall too. I just had to change my approach to them. If I have a phone or computer that is working there is not need to upgrade, just to have the latest and greatest.

  9. I’ve gotten better at delaying gratification. I am the oldest so I always felt like I had to wait for my siblings before I could do/get anything I wanted. Then as I got older and out on my own I decided I would “reward” myself whenever I really wanted to. Not a wise thing! So I had to “retrain” myself to put some things on hold. Plus marriage and kids will do that to you too!

    In what areas of your life do you struggle to delay gratification? I’m a sucker for travel and social costs – going on a weekend trip (by car) to another state, taking the kids to festivals, etc., secret getaways for the hubby and myself.

    What about areas that you can easily delay? Electronics – I still use my VHS player (tapes rule!), autos, anything sports related. – all the things the hubby is a sucker for.

    Do you know anyone that has put themselves in a bad situation because of impulse purchasing? YES, I have a friend with perfect credit but lots of it. She is never turned down for anything, so of course she has store cards, major cards, etc. Everything gets paid, but it’s by moving the same money around. The problem…her dream job came along and now she is taking a pay cut to take that job (her current job is about to be eliminated). Now although she has a great job she loves, she is barely making ends meat and 1 emergency can potentially cause her to mess up her credit, fall behind with her mortgage, or loose her leased car. Plus because she has lived on cards for the last decade…she has no real cash reserves.

  10. My smarty pig accounts have helped me learn the reward of delayed gratification. I can still save toward things that are important to me even though I am focusing on paying off my student loans first…plus it’s FDIC insured and the rate is better than ING or Ally or anywhere else I checked.

    I’ve saved over the past 2 years for a new laptop because I know I’ll need one and I want to be able to get one when mine crashes. The money is just sitting in my smarty pig account collecting interest until I’m ready to rock and roll! There is no better feeling than knowing that you have the cash to pay for something when needed.

  11. I’m not one to indulge in material things, however, for some reason or another, I went on a shopping binge, purchasing an item everyday of the week. Every day I bought something new, virtually wiping my checking and savings account clean, not do be deterred by my lack of funds I went in to a car dealership and bought a brand new mustang. Of course, I got a nice deal– 0 interest for 72 months but once driving off the lot I realized how my newly acquired purchasing binge would pull be under if I didn’t handle the situation. I immediately began damage control, applying for part time jobs, within two weeks, I got a part time job as a service bartender. It has been one year since my quarter life crisis purchasing binge and I’ve paid 40 percent of the car. I’ve learned the importance of thinking beyond the moments of instant gratification– those temporary high’s fade and once they do, we are left dealing with the aftermath. PATIENCE>impulsiveness

  12. […] Ninja featured a guest post by the Digerati Life called The Marshmallow Test: A Look At Delayed Gratification. I love marshamallow, but I have a harder time resisting candy corn.  So, for me this would be the […]

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