Spotlight Study: Delayed Gratification


In the classic, late 1960s experiment, a researcher placed a marshmallow in front of a child. If the child could resist the marshmallow for 15 minutes they were told they would get a second marshmallow. The large majority of the children, with an average age of four, could not wait the 15 minutes to receive a second marshmallow. Follow up studies also confirmed these findings and lead to further investigation into the role delayed gratification played in a child’s future success. What they discovered was a revolutionary correlation between the amount of time a child could delay gratification and their success as an adult. Furthermore, delayed gratification was shown to be a better predictor of later success than intelligence.

A new study published in the October 2012 of Cognition has cast new light on this study, by showing that there may be a rational decision between certain children’s inability to wait for that second marshmallow. Doctoral candidate Celeste Kidd of the University of Rochester, the lead author of study, hypothesised that the rationale is based on the likelihood of perceived trust in getting the second marshmallow.


According to Kidd’s hypothesis, delayed gratification is not a rational decision if a child does not trust in the researcher. Living in poor socioeconomic conditions fosters a mistrust in delayed gratification, and so Kidd believed that recreating an environment of mistrust in experimental conditions can reduce the time a child could delay their gratification.

Kidd et al. gave children some poor quality art supplies and told them that if they could resist them, a researcher would return with better art supplies. In the ‘reliable’ condition, the researcher did return with better quality art supplies, but in the ‘unreliable’ condition, the researcher did not return with better supplies stating they did not have them. Like in the original experiment, these children were also an average age of four, and the majority of the children could not wait the full fifteen minutes. However, the difference between the ‘reliable’ and ‘unreliable’ condition is that in the first condition that child could wait an average of 12 minutes, where as in the second they only waited an average of 3 minutes.


These findings suggest a strong association between how long a child was able to wait for the supplies and various measures of mental health, competence and success in later life.

In the article on delayed gratification featured in the March/April 2013 edition of Scientific American Mind an imaging study was mentioned that studied the kids in the original 1960s experiment. This study found significant differences in the activity of key brain areas between those who could and could not resist the temptation of the marshmallow. This counters the idea that only self-control plays a role in resisting temptation  socioeconomic status, quality of parenting and environmental factors also play a crucial role.


Makin, Simon. ‘Delayed Gratification “A Marshmallow in the Hand.’” Scientific American Mind March/April t 2013: 8. Print.