October 11, 2019

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When psychologist Walter Mischel published the findings of his famous marshmallow study, showing the impact of delayed gratification on a child’s future success, it changed how people raised their kids. But in the nearly 50 years since the study was published, questions have been asked about our ability to truly look ahead. Is teaching a child delayed gratification really all there is to making sure they succeed? How well can we predict the future, and prepare for it?

Bina Venkataraman, author of “The Optimist's Telescope: Thinking Ahead in a Reckless Age,” looks at the strategies we use, and how good we genuinely are at predicting the future. And although studies like Mischel’s may make us think we have it all figured out, Venkataraman says, in reality, we’re not as good as we think.

Three Takeaways:

  • Since the results of the original marshmallow test study were published in the 1970s, researchers have produced a huge body of work examining the findings of the original study. According to Venkataraman, they found that the ability to delay gratification is not innate, nor is it a good predictor for success alone. Researchers found that delayed gratification is influenced by the environment and culture that people grow up in, and its correlation with success depends on many other factors.
  • People are notoriously bad at planning for the future, according to Venkataraman. She says that many people lack the imagination to think of scenarios they haven’t experienced. If we are confronted with a likely situation but don’t embrace the potential outcome, we often ignore that scenario and plan for the outcomes we actually want, making it difficult to accurately plan for the future.
  • Occasionally, there are outliers who are able to predict outcomes that nobody or few others can, like Robert Shiller, the Yale economist who predicted the 2008 housing market crash. Venkataraman says that typically, the kinds of people who are best prepared for the future focus on metrics for long term success - like customer loyalty - instead of measurements for short term profit, such as quarterly earnings.

More reading:

  • The marshmallow test told us that learning delayed gratification can have a huge impact on future success. But what other traits have the same influence? Various researchers have explored the question, and one major new finding is summarized here in an article by “Scientific American.”
  • Some researchers doubt the marshmallow experiment, according to this article by Vox. In it, psychologists argue that the correlation between success and the ability to delay gratification becomes less significant when controlling for family income, environment, and early cognitive ability.
  • Mishel’s original marshmallow experiment didn’t control for culture. When researchers tried to replicate his work in various cultures, one study found that Cameroonian kids were twice as likely as German kids to wait the time needed to get a second treat.

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