40 Years of Stanford Research Found That People With This One Quality Are More Likely to Succeed

In the 1960s, a Stanford professor named Walter Mischel began conducting a series of important psychological studies.

During his experiments, Mischel and his team tested hundreds of children — most of them around the ages of 4 and 5 years old — and revealed what is now believed to be one of the most important characteristics for success in health, work, and life.

Let’s talk about what happened and, more importantly, how you can use it.

The Marshmallow Experiment

The experiment began by bringing each child into a private room, sitting them down in a chair, and placing a marshmallow on the table in front of them.

At this point, the researcher offered a deal to the child.

The researcher told the child that he was going to leave the room and that if the child did not eat the marshmallow while he was away, then they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. However, if the child decided to eat the first one before the researcher came back, then they would not get a second marshmallow.

So the choice was simple: one treat right now or two treats later.

The researcher left the room for 15 minutes.

As you can imagine, the footage of the children waiting alone in the room was rather entertaining. Some kids jumped up and ate the first marshmallow as soon as the researcher closed the door. Others wiggled and bounced and scooted in their chairs as they tried to restrain themselves, but eventually gave in to temptation a few minutes later. And finally, a few of the children did manage to wait the entire time.

Published in 1972, this popular study became known as The Marshmallow Experiment, but it wasn’t the treat that made it famous. The interesting part came years later.

The Power of Delayed Gratification

As the years rolled on and the children grew up, the researchers conducted follow up studies and tracked each child’s progress in a number of areas. What they found was surprising.

The children who were willing to delay gratification and waited to receive the second marshmallow ended up having higher SAT scores, lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, better social skills as reported by their parents, and generally better scores in a range of other life measures. (You can see the followup studies here, here, and here.)

The researchers followed each child for more than 40 years and over and over again, the group who waited patiently for the second marshmallow succeed in whatever capacity they were measuring. In other words, this series of experiments proved that the ability to delay gratification was critical for success in life.

And if you look around, you’ll see this playing out everywhere…

  • If you delay the gratification of watching television and get your homework done now, then you’ll learn more and get better grades.
  • If you delay the gratification of buying desserts and chips at the store, then you’ll eat healthier when you get home.
  • If you delay the gratification of finishing your workout early and put in a few more reps, then you’ll be stronger.

… and countless other examples.

Success usually comes down to choosing the pain of discipline over the ease of distraction. And that’s exactly what delayed gratification is all about.

This brings us to an interesting question: Did some children naturally have more self-control, and thus were destined for success? Or can you learn to develop this important trait?

What Determines Your Ability to Delay Gratification?

Researchers at the University of Rochester decided to replicate the marshmallow experiment, but with an important twist. (You can read the study here.)

Before offering the child the marshmallow, the researchers split the children into two groups.

The first group was exposed to a series of unreliable experiences. For example, the researcher gave the child a small box of crayons and promised to bring a bigger one, but never did. Then the researcher gave the child a small sticker and promised to bring a better selection of stickers, but never did.

Meanwhile, the second group had very reliable experiences. They were promised better crayons and got them. They were told about the better stickers and then they received them.

You can imagine the impact these experiences had on the marshmallow test. The children in the unreliable group had no reason to trust that the researchers would bring a second marshmallow and thus they didn’t wait very long to eat the first one.

Meanwhile, the children in the second group were training their brains to see delayed gratification as a positive. Every time the researcher made a promise and then delivered on it, the child’s brain registered two things: 1) waiting for gratification is worth it and 2) I have the capability to wait. As a result, the second group waited an average of four times longer than the first group.

In other words, the child’s ability to delay gratification and display self-control was not a predetermined trait, but rather was impacted by the experiences and environment that surrounded them. In fact, the effects of the environment were almost instantaneous. Just a few minutes of reliable or unreliable experiences were enough to push the actions of each child in one direction or another.

What can you and I learn from all of this?

How to Become Better at Delaying Gratification

Before we go further, let’s clear one thing up: for one reason or another, the Marshmallow Experiment has become particularly popular. You’ll find it mentioned in nearly every major media outlet. But these studies are just one piece of data, a small insight into the story of success. Human behavior (and life in general) is a lot more complex than that, so let’s not pretend that one choice a four-year-old makes will determine the rest of his or her life.

But…

The studies above do make one thing clear: if you want to succeed at something, at some point you will need to find the ability to be disciplined and take action instead of becoming distracted and doing what’s easy. Success in nearly every field requires you to ignore doing something easier (delaying gratification) in favor of doing something harder (doing the work and putting in your reps).

But the key takeaway here is that even if you don’t feel like you’re good at delaying gratification now, you can train yourself to become better simply by making a few small improvements. In the case of the children in the study, this meant being exposed to a reliable environment where the researcher promised something and then delivered it.

You and I can do the same thing. We can train our ability to delay gratification, just like we can train our muscles in the gym. And you can do it in the same way as the child and the researcher: by promising something small and then delivering. Over and over again until your brain says, 1) yes, it’s worth it to wait and 2) yes, I have the capability to do this.

Here are 4 simple ways to do exactly that:

  1. Start incredibly small. Make your new habit “so easy you can’t say no.” (Hat tip to Leo Babauta.)
  2. Improve one thing, by one percent. Do it again tomorrow.
  3. Use the “Seinfeld Strategy” to maintain consistency.
  4. Find a way to get started in less than 2 minutes.

26 Comments

  1. Elizabeth says:

    The NYT just posted an article a couple weeks ago that goes into more detail about what the experiment really was about – definitely an interesting read. (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/12/magazine/we-didnt-eat-the-marshmallow-the-marshmallow-ate-us.html)

    Doesn’t necessarily negate the results, but I definitely think we put way too much weight on whether or not a bunch of kids (who were all children of Stanford professors and grad students, which also seems highly relevant) ate a marshmallow or not.

    • James Clear says:

      Great point, Elizabeth. And I added a bit of disclaimer to the final section because of it.

      One note: with regards to the children being the kids of Stanford professors and grad students, I don’t think that changes anything. From my understanding, the children were compared to the rest of the group, not to society as a whole. If that’s true, then comparing the child of one Stanford professor to the child of another Stanford professor seems like a relatively even playing field.

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

      • Elizabeth says:

        Good point! I’m a HUGE fan of your site! Thanks so much for all your work, I get so excited to see new articles on your site – I always know it’ll be a thought-provoking read.

  2. Lynn Silva says:

    Hi James,

    I have to humbly admit that I was self-indulged as a child. While I enjoyed it then, it did have consequences when I entered into adulthood. Having gained a bit of wisdom, I’ve made sure that I initiate exercises for my children based upon the Marshmallow Experiment. Often, just my wording greatly influences their choices. If they truly comprehend the advantages of waiting, they gladly do so.

    The point I’m trying to make is that ‘mind tools’ or ‘mental skills’ such as these can be practiced at any age and no doubt have a powerful influence on the magnitude of success an individual has.

    Your article, in a way, just reinforces what I’ve attempted to instill in my children now, so that they have the self-discipline they’ll need later in life.

    I work in the development of mental skills. I am now going to add ‘delayed gratification’ to my list of skills for people to build upon. Absolutely awesome, thought-provoking article. I literally ‘eat up’ your posts.

  3. David D says:

    Great insight to things I always think about!

  4. Gerard Liddy says:

    James I’m loving your stuff and it has been flowing through my personal and private life for a while now. I’m a Crossfitter and one of the strategies I have been coached around is “one more rep” it helps me to silence the voice in my head saying I’ll never get through this whole workout and just focus on each part. Be it one rep at a time or chunks. This same process works all through my life, delaying quitting, and increasing gratification.

    Gerard

  5. Sal Castillo says:

    Elizabeth makes a good point regarding children of professors and grad students. Growing up in an environment that values learning typically instills the powerful habit of reflection before impulsively acting. But is this test really about self-control? It could be about selfishness, minding your elders, or in my case being brought up believing that sharing is important.

    As the oldest of five, I would have waited to get two to give to the marshmallows to my brother and sister who would have been 3 and 1. I am not a saint, by any means, but at five that was an important value in our family.

    As James mentions, human behavior is a lot more complex? Don’t you think self-control is it’s own reward, regardless if we get extrinsic incentives? And if you don’t have self-control, it is never too late to work on it.

  6. Jeanne says:

    James. I love your blog and follow it closely. However, as a mother of a child with ADHA and Aspergers syndrome , I think you need to be careful. There are millions of kids whose frontal cortex develop differently and hopefully late but fully. However, many kids with that umbrella diagnosis of ADHD have brains that neurological develop differently than you and I. These kids cannot delay gratification at age 4 or 5, though maybe by 25, their frontal cortex has developed enough to delay gratification. Just please be careful how you apply these studies you use in your blogs to the general population. Actually, you would be surprised at the high number of diagnosed ADHD and Autism spectrum kids out there.

    Their parents may write you off for not understanding this high percentage of the population. James, you are doing really good work. Jut please be sensitive to parents of kids with ADHD and Autism spectrum … a high percentage of school age kids. Thanks!

    • Kim says:

      So? Does this mean anyone should not publish anything of a general nature without provisos. “…this high percentage of the population” equates to 3 percent of 1 percent of the population! Which means this article applies to 99.9997 percent.
      Understandably Jeanne is sensitive to this subject but that is no reason to endlessly publish every proviso you can think of, and probably still not cover the entire field of exceptions.

  7. Mert says:

    An article like a gold piece. Thanks.

  8. Dean Hallberg says:

    James, I have preached this to my kids, now 26 and 27 for years. I call it short term pleasure and long term pain. It stems from the teen years when they would “do anything to get to go to the party”. On a related note I practice what is called EAT THE FROG. If you have a series of things to accomplish, tackle the least desirable one first. It’s all down hill from there. Often the thought of doing something uncomfortable is actually worse than reality. Get it out of the way and you will clear your mind to be more productive. Keep the blog rolling!

  9. Sarvesh says:

    James..I thank you for this post..Delayed gratification is something alien to me. I always fall for easy distractions and it had a great impact on my life as one can assume..so this is something i have to train myself..so am i to understand that in order to master the skill of delayed gratification, i have to always reward myself for what i did..then arises the confusion that, if i start doing things for a reward it contradicts your own theory that one has to focus 90% on your actions and only 10% on your goals or so called rewards..your inputs will be deeply appreciated..

  10. Wan says:

    I don’t think that much whether there’s a problem with the research or not as mentioned by other commenters.

    But the only thing I can say is delayed gratification should be practised by everyone. I don’t think we need research to convince us because it’s common sense that if we delay rewards, we are more likely to exercise our willpower and learn to think long-term rather than short-term.

    Thanks for the post James.

  11. Godfrey Kigozi says:

    Very interesting insightful article. It breaks down the easy steps of doing the hardest of things. Thanks James.

  12. Anna says:

    James, this is an interesting post, as always. Thank you!
    The main idea of your essay considers a highly debated subject in behavior science: is personality inborn or formed, which divides psychologists into two major groups. One believes that people are genetically predisposed to certain behaviors and act according to their instincts. The other insists that humans are the product of the society. In other words, nature vs. nurture argument.
    I think both have merit. We simply can’t deny our inborn abilities and tendencies that influence our lives. But nurture shapes us into who we are.
    I strongly believe that self-control and self-discipline can be learned. 100% agree with your statement:”The studies above do make one thing clear: if you want to succeed at something, at some point you will need to find the ability to be disciplined and take action instead of becoming distracted and doing what’s easy”
    There has been a study conducted to find out the most similar habits and practices of the ultra successful people have in common. One of the them was: they are willing to do what others don’t. This is nothing but a discipline.

  13. Américo Gomes says:

    Im reading all your posts and I’m learning a lot from them. Hope I can develop some of the habits you recommend in order to turn them a natural process. Hope to share some big stories with you.

    Besides your work “Transform your Habits”, are there any other book which you recommend to read with the same content?

    Directly from Portugal, a Big Thanks.

  14. Kishor says:

    I must say that reading your articles, blogs is one of the best finds which I have made over last few years. You have really expressed what or how I think or was thinking.
    Your articles are very nicely written and are truly thought provoking.

    Thanks for such a beautiful work.

    Will look forward to receive your emails regularly.

    Thanks again.

  15. Jess says:

    “Success usually comes down to choosing the pain of discipline over the ease of distraction. And that’s exactly what delayed gratification is all about”. This is exactly what I needed to read today. Thank you Mr. Clear. I’ve been reading your blogs for about two weeks consistently. You have wonderful insights on many aspects in my life. I can’t say I see much progress in my own thoughts just yet but I feel like these articles could get me there. Thank you!

  16. Sami says:

    Very inspiring. Always look forward to your articles.

    Many thanks, Mr.James.

  17. Jeff Carlson says:

    Many thanks for your great summation.

  18. Ian says:

    James,
    This is really well done.

    I’ve been struggling with my relationship to sugar/caffeine/alcohol ever since I came into my early 30′s… now 33. The sweets part of it has been a struggle since as far back as I can remember.

    I notice my desire for these things go high when I am emotionally troubled. After my last 2 relationships not working out I noticed after each one the drive for these things got very strong and tends to drive me to the “buy now/pay later” of not going for discipline and “delayed gratification” with these things. It always seems to lead to the same place of suffering when I chose to have these things now just cuz I want them and want to avoid my sadness, loneliness, frustration, depression and/or anxiety.

    I recently did 120 days without these things on a paleo based way of eating and felt more grounded and stable. It was hard in the beginning when I started but as time went on I noticed myself feeling calmer and more able to handle life without sweets/caffeine/alcohol. When I decided to try putting back in some wine/fruit and eventually caffeine I immediately got inflammation/skin problems along with being extremely ungrounded again and spaced out, and found myself addicted all over again.

    Your article hits the nail on the head based on my experience. Thanks!

  19. Wesanda says:

    Thanks so much for this insight. I have never thought that by delaying gratification I could become more disciplined. I will definitely take this knowledge and be better. One step at a time.

  20. Stephen Anderson says:

    We all know that the ripened fruit tastes the best, eating green fruit will often give us a stomach ache. Why not wait for other gratifying experiences in our life too, that way we get to savor them in advance AND in reality at the right moment.

  21. Tizgowere says:

    I have done some Experimental Psychology but this research is new to me. What an insightful study!

  22. Papa Tom Robertson says:

    Very interesting, especially the twist in the more recent studies. I know of times I have been very able to delay gratification and times I have not been. So I contend I have been unconsciously swayed by recent events in both directions.

    Thus, anecdotally coupled with this article I know I can rebuild those muscles. Woohoo!

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