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Marshmallow test indicates SES not future success

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In the entire history of pop science, the marshmallow test has yielded some of the cutest results.

We've all seen the vision of kids presented with the option of eating marshmallow now or waiting 15 minutes and getting two.

Whether the kids struggle and give into temptation and eat the lolly or stop themselves and receive the payoff is supposed to indicate the child’s future success, after all delayed gratification is at the centre of all achievement.

All well and good, but with the introduction of a wider test group and controls for socio economic background it looks like the ability to hold off indicates something more prosaic than self-discipline, the result actually indicated whether a kid comes from a rich or poor background.

What’s more the test reinforces that the strongest factor influencing a kid’s future success is whether they come from money or not.

During the 1960s and ’70s, the marshmallow test was carried out on about 90 children enrolled in a local Stanford preschool. Years later the team revisited their test subjects to examine the correlation between an early ability to delay gratification (as represented by holding out for the second marshmallow) and later success. The positive outcomes exhibited by those who resisted temptation included higher school leaving exam scores and lower body mass index.

The new study, led by New York University’s Tyler Watts and the University of California-Irvine’s Greg Duncan and Haonan Quan, features a rejigged version of the original test. Researchers increased the sample size to more than 900 children and included a more diverse array of individuals with a range of ethnicities, income and education levels. They also analysed results while considering background factors.

The researchers found there was very little to indicate that an ability to delay gratification correlated with greater potential in the future.

For the less well-off students, there is less certainty in day to day life. There might be food in the cupboard today, but there might not be tomorrow, so you’re probably better off eating the treat now.

While for kids who come from households with better education levels and more money, it’s easier to delay gratification: the probability is there will be a marshmallow to be had later if you want it.


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