The Importance of Marshmallows in Predicting Success

40 years of research found that people with one specific quality are more likely to succeed.

In the 1960s, a Stanford professor began conducting a series of psychological studies with hundreds of children aged 4 to 5 years-old. The results revealed one of the most important characteristics for success in health, work and life in general – the ability to delay gratification.

The experiment started like this. A researcher would bring a child into a private room and place a single marshmallow on a tray in front of them. Then, the researcher offered the child a deal. The researcher told the child that he would leave the room and if the child could refrain from eating the marshmallow while he was away, they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow when the researcher returned.

So the child had a choice: Eat one treat now or get two treats later.

The child was then videotaped during the researcher’s absence. Some children immediately popped the marshmallow into their mouths. According to the study, some children tried to distance themselves from the temptation by covering their eyes with their hands or turning around so that they couldn’t see the tray. Others tried distracting themselves by kicking the desk, or tugging on their pigtails, or stroking the marshmallow as if it were a tiny stuffed animal. At the end of the experiment, only about a quarter of the children were able to hold out and earn the second marshmallow.

Published in 1972, the study became known as “The Marshmallow Experiment.” However, it was the follow-up that happened years later that brought the most important revelation of the study. Researchers tracked down the children that had participated and found that those who had held out for the second marshmallow had achieved higher SAT scores, completed more education, were more physically fit and had higher incomes. Researchers determined that the ability to defer gratification is a key quality for success in all areas of life.

Let’s just focus on financial success. Think about all of the ways that focusing on long-term rewards over instant satisfaction leads to prosperity.

  1. Consumer debt: Saving up for something instead of buying it now on credit means not wasting money on high interest costs.
  2. Insurance: Sacrificing up a little money now on premiums will reward you big time in the case of huge costs that may come from accidents, crime, health issues, or natural disasters.
  3. Saving for retirement: Having the security and lifestyle that you want in your golden years means planning and allocating money for that today.
  4. Entrepreneurship: Most wealthy people got that way by building their own business. But unlike a job with an immediate paycheck, entrepreneurship takes sacrifice and hard work up front with the rewards coming down the line.
  5. Investing: Profitable returns take time. Smart investors think long-term and are rewarded for their patience.

The results of The Marshmallow Experiment make one thing clear: if you want to succeed, you need an ability to trade what’s easy and immediately gratifying for future rewards. Success in nearly every area of life requires you to ignore what you want now in favor of your larger goals.

The good news is, even if you don’t feel like you’re good at delaying gratification now, you can train yourself to become better. It’s a mindset that you can develop over time. When you start going to the gym regularly, you don’t see immediate results, but each workout strengthens the habit that leads to long-term fitness.  Financial fitness is the same. Developing the daily habits of delayed gratification in spending, business building, saving and investing will train your brain that 1. it’s worth it to delay gratification and 2. you have you ability to do it.



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