November 25


Think You Lack Willpower? Here Is Another Possibility

By Peter Julian

November 25, 2019

A classic psychology study tested children’s willpower with marshmallows and concluded that those who delayed gratification attained better results later in life. However, these conclusions have since been questioned. The argument is that, for reasons related to upbringing, the “impulsive” kids who didn’t delay their gratification may actually just have been mistrustful of the experimenters. Not only children, but adults may have reasons not to trust others to keep their promises. Or they may not truly value the outcome that the time and effort is supposed to bring about. This isn’t to say that willpower isn’t important, but that there are rational reasons for not persisting.

Key Takeaways:

  • Children who had experienced more volatile or unreliable environments were more likely to take the first marshmallow immediately, which is arguably a rational choice in an unpredictable environment.
  • Recent analysis suggests that the marshmallow experiment’s findings get weaker once one controls for income and other social distinctions.
  • Whether to go for immediate gains or hold out is often a matter of strategic choice more than willpower.

“children who waited longer went on to attain higher SAT scores and performed better on other measures compared to their seemingly more impulsive peers”

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