A few days ago I was reminiscing with a friend about childhood Halloween experiences.
"I always stretched out my candy," she said. "I would sometimes still have some left when the next year's Halloween came around."
"Ah," I said. "you would have done really well on that Marshmallow Test." The Marshmallow Test, as you likely know, is the famous 1972 Stanford experiment that looked at whether a child could resist a marshmallow (or cookie) in front of them, in exchange for more goodies later. Follow-up studies showed that kids who could control their impulses to eat the treat right away did better on SAT scores later and were also less likely to be addicts.
Since then, the ability to delay gratification has been steadily touted as a key "non-cognitive" skill that determines a child's future success. Paul Tough's excellent new book, How Children Succeed, is the latest to look at how to instill willpower in disadvantaged kids.
There's no question that delaying gratification is correlated with success. A more recent twist on the study found that a reliable environment increases kids' ability to delay gratification. This makes sense: If you don't believe an adult will haul out more marshmallows later, why deny yourself the sure one in front of you?