1 marshmallow or 2? A study on the benefits of delayed gratification

By glblguy


While listening to the book, Crucial Conversations a few weeks back, the authors discussed a study that was done in the 1960’s by Standford University psychology researcher Michael Mischel. His study demonstrated how important self-discipline is to success.

The study began with a group of children 4 years old. He optionally offered them one marshmallow immediately, but instead if they could wait for him to return later, they could have two marshmallows instead. He left for approximately 20 minutes. His theory? The children that could wait would demonstrate they had the ability to delay gratification and control impulse, both significant and important traits for attaining wealth and being financially successful. As you would expect, some children took one marshmallow, and other children decided to wait and received two later.

Fourteen years later, the simple study demonstrated the significant differences between the two groups of children. The children who delayed gratification and waited until Dr. Mischel’s return were more positive, persistent when faced with life difficulties, more self motivated and were able to delay immediate gratification in order to pursue their longer term goals.

The children who chose 1 marshmallow didn’t fare as well. They were more indecisive, mistrustful of others, less self confident and often more troubled in general. They were more obviously unable to delay immediate gratification.

Comparing the SAT scores of the 1 marshmallow students to the 2 marshmallow students showed that students that chose 1 marshmallow scored an average of 210 points lower than the 2 marshmallow students. Why? 2 marshmallow students are able to sacrifice immediate activity in the interest of more focused study time for a longer term benefit. The one marshmallow students were far more impulsive resulting in higher distraction and less focus on their school work. They fell for the old “Hey let’s go out, you can always study later“.

Lack of impulse control has proven to result in less successful marriages, low job satisfaction, bad health, overall frustration in life. All of these result in something that has significant negative impact on being wealthy: low income.

Personal finance and delayed gratification

If you haven’t read the Millionaire Next Door, I would strongly recommend that you do. Every millionaire profiled became a millionaire due to the principle of delayed gratification. They sacrificed in the short term to gain in the long. They knew instinctively that if they could just be patient, they would get what they wanted and more.

Wealth is all about making smart decisions, and recognizing that even small amounts saved and/or invested grow over time. Each time you make a decision to postpone a purchase, live with that beat up old car, or wear that old dress shirt makes you more wealthy tomorrow. This blog is named Gather Little by Little and it’s a biblical concept that makes sense. Whether you are religious or not, it’s hard to argue that the principles found in Proverbs 13:11 aren’t wise. Frankly, it’s hard to argue that any wisdom provided by Solomon isn’t wise. But I digress…

Make decisions for tomorrow, not for now.

I know some of you (maybe even many of you) are reading this right now and saying “But you may not be here tomorrow” or “You should live each day to the fullest, as tomorrow may not come“. I can’t argue with that, you may not be here tomorrow; however statistics say you most likely will be. The average lifespan in America is just shy of 80 years of age, and continues to go up. Odds of dieing in a car accident during a person’s entire life are very low (1 in 34). Arguments like these are one marshmallow kind of thinking. Also, don’t confuse living and spending. Happiness in life shouldn’t be based on stuff.

I was a 1 marshmallow kid

Through listening to this story and researching this article, I realized that throughout most of my life, I was a 1 marshmallow kid. I was easily distracted, and frequently focused on the present and not the future. Ironically, this was in sharp contrast to my best friend in college who was clearly a 2 marshmallow kid. If I decided I wanted a new car, I would just go and buy one. He would save his money until he could pay for it in cash, all the while driving an older and paid for car. If I decided I wanted a new “thumping” stereo, I’d head over to the local stereo shop and buy a top of the line one on credit. My friend would buy inexpensive components and pay cash for them. Funny thing, my stereo never really sounded much better, but cost far more.

Even more interesting was that my SAT score was right at 200 points below his. Wow…scary huh? The one thing that did benefit me and help keep me from falling to far to the one marshmallow side is/was my competitive nature. As a result, I tended to hang around with 2 marshmallow kids and my competitive nature kept me driving in the right direction.

I believe you are who you are, and while you can change small things about yourself, it’s near impossible to change significant things. The best you can do is manage them. A little over a year ago, I made a significant mindset change from thinking like a one marshmallow kid, to thinking more like a two marshmallow kid. On the inside, I always wanted¬† that one marshmallow now; however through experience, age, and parental and marital responsibility I learned to fight those instincts and make more two marshmallow like decisions. I promise you, it’s a daily battle for me.

Trying the experiment on my kids

I decided to try the marshmallow experiment on my kids while driving in the car one day. I didn’t offer them marshmallows, but did ask them what they would do if presented with the choice. Honestly, I expected mixed results, but they all very quickly said “2”. I was VERY glad to hear this, although I’m not convinced that presented with a marshmallow and the real scenario they would choose 2. I do plan to give this a try in the next few weeks, I’ll let you know how it turns out. Try it on your kids and see what they do. If anything, it really opens a door to discuss finances.

Helping your children make 2 marshmallow decisions

For those of you that are parents, while you can’t change the psychological basis your child has for a one or two marshmallow mentality, you can help them manage their potential one vs. two marshmallow decisions.¬† You can help them to think through the consequences of the financial decisions they make and help them understand the consequences and benefits of the various decisions they will make.

An interesting tool I came across while researching this article was the Money Savvey Pig. It’s a piggy bank with 4 separate chambers labeled: SAVE, SPEND, DONATE, and INVEST. The chambers give your child a choice each time they have money to deposit. This bank forces your child to think through the pros and cons of what chamber to place the money.

If you have an older child (a tween or teen), try this riddle from Susan Beacham of Money Savvy Generation:

Ask your child to record what they spend on things they want every day for a week. They can even estimate at the end of each day before they go to bed what that dollar amount is. Typically these expenses are in the “I want” category, such as snack food or a trinket, not the “I need” category as in laces for those overly expensive sneakers. At the end of the week sit down and see if they have spent at least $4 a day on “I wants.” Chances are they have spent that, and then some. Then, ask them to quickly answer this multiple choice test – without using a calculator:

At age 12 you decide not to buy soda or extra snacks – either during the school week or on weekends or vacations. You save $4.00 a day. You put $4 a day in a savings vehicle such as a long-term IRA CD at five percent annual interest and leave it alone. At age 67, your savings is:

(a) $1,159
(b) $25,355
(c) $80,352
(d) $427,025

Answer: (d), or $427,025. Note that $80,352 is from the daily deposits and the remaining $346,673 is interest!

Are you a one marshmallow to two person? How about your kids? Share your thoughts and perspective and add to the article by adding a comment!

31 Responses (including trackbacks) to “1 marshmallow or 2? A study on the benefits of delayed gratification”

  1. lyza Says:

    hello! My kid is just 5 month old, but I think he is one marshmallow. As soon as he see his food he just begin to screem or just grab his spoon or the food on my plate.

  2. Nathaniel Scott Says:

    great post! i’m going to try the marshmallow scenario with my kids…i’m very curious. will let you know how it goes. also, love the idea of the money savvy pig. allows for separation/designation right away instead of “later” (aka never).

  3. CiaranFromChance Says:

    Really enjoyed this article Gbbl. Love studies that span longer periods of time, like this one. Also, appreciate the candid remarks about how it all related to you.

    Looking forward to hearing the results of your experiment with the kids.

  4. Laura Says:

    What an interesting study! I was a 1 marshmellow kid myself. I was pretty savvy about raising money (recylced for money, garage sales, lemonade stand, etc), but I spent it on the stupidiest things (She-Ra dolls and my little ponies).

  5. Mrs. Rocket Says:

    I am so a 1-marshmallow person, unfortunately! My dear hubby is trying to help me see the long-term advantages of the 2-mallow way though. :-) And it is slowly becoming a habit.
    We will have to try this experiment on our kids–right now I think they would all take the one and run! Hopefully we can change that too!
    Thanks for sharing–I really enjoy your blog.
    –Mrs. Rocket

  6. MoneyBlogga Says:

    Regretfully, I was a 1 marshmallow kid. I don’t think I ever saw a marshmallow growing up, mind you, but I “get” the concept. I’ve been a 1 marshmallow type most of my life but I’m determined to change. I hope I CAN change. I very much enjoy your articles.

  7. kim Says:

    Very interesting post!

  8. "Mo" Money Says:

    I think this is a great post as it relates so well with the current situation in the housing market. Those that bought more house than they could afford, and/or used an interest only loan, those folks are all one marshmallow people.

    A two marshmallow person would buy a started house and save for the down payment, then move up when he could afford it. The same goes for those who save enough to avoid the PMI payment.

    Thank for a good thought provoking blog!

  9. Dan Says:

    Not to be contrarian, but… well, ok, I love to be contrarian.

    The first marshmellow is a lot more enjoyable than the second. At some point, the wait really isn’t worth the payoff. True, $4.00 a day for 45 years adds up to $427,025, but on the other had you won’t have the enjoyment of 16,436 days worth of sodas and extra snacks. Who is to say that isn’t worth some future payoff you may or may not even live to see?

    Consider the lilies of the valley, or consider the man who planned to build bigger and bigger barns in anticipation of future harvests. How much delayed gratification is too much?

  10. Sally C Says:

    Okay, you asked. I tested my then three-year-old with M&M’s on her high chair tray. I gave her about 3 candies and told her that I needed to go upstairs for a while and if she didn’t eat the M&M’s until I came back I would give her 3 more.

    Imagine my astonishment when the candies were still there. Imagine my FURTHER astonishment when she didn’t look a bit stressed out about waiting either.

    I guess this amuses me because I would have devoured the candies before mom left the room. :o

  11. glblguy Says:

    @Sally C – That is awesome!!! Sounds like you might have a 2 marshmallow kid! hehe, same here…they would have been toast :-)

  12. Traciatim Says:

    Darn, I did this a while back with my kids but I sat them both down and gave them 6 chocolate chips. I explained that I needed to leave for a second and when I get back I will give them another chip for every chip that is still on the table. It wasn’t 5 seconds before they ate them all . . . at least they ate three each. Time for some lessons :)

  13. Blake Says:

    This is excellent. When you think about it, this applies to many, many aspects of life.

    Awesome post and site!

  14. sara l Says:

    I’m a 2 marshmallow person getting ready to marry someone who’s a 1. It always makes shopping fun.

  15. Florent Says:

    Very interesting! I am a kind of mixed marshmallow person: extremely 1-marshmallowy for food and education, but much more two-marshmallowy when it comes to money.

  16. zaira cabaron Says:

    wooow.i cant believe that.very uncanny…..