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Delaying Gratification: Is it worth it?

Many of us know of the famous “marshmallow test” – a psychological test that celebrates the importance of delayed gratification. This study explored how children responded when faced with temptation. With one marshmallow already in front of them, they were offered a deal: Either have the one marshmallow now, or hold off and be rewarded with two marshmallows. Some children were able to wait it out, others gobbled their marshmallow right up!

Following these children into adolescence, researchers found that those who waited for the bigger reward were more well-adjusted, had better academic records & greater self-regulation. They concluded that a child who is able to practice delayed gratification was likely to reap a range of benefits down the line. A nice simple story right? Well, as usual the truth is likely a bit more complicated.

In 2018, researchers called this simple story into question. The original study’s child participants were all from the Stanford campus kindergarten & typically from highly educated, well-resourced affluent families. The new study instead used a larger, more diverse sample of children. While they still found a strong relationship between delaying gratification & later achievement, the effect was greatly reduced after taking other factors into account. They argue that the capacity to hold out for a second marshmallow is heavily influenced by a child’s social and economic background.

Of course this makes sense, we know that your home environment makes a huge difference to development. It’s also logical that children from less resourced backgrounds are less likely to hold out for the second marshmallow; when you’re accustomed to scarcity, you take the treat while you can. We often think delaying gratification is always the right choice – but that’s assuming that we know a reward is coming. A child’s ability to wait for a reward is not only driven by their self-control, but also their trust that a second treat will indeed be delivered.

References: Shoda, Mischel & Peake (1990); Watts, Duncan & Quan (2018)

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