Now Or Later

Imagine the following situation. You agree to participate in an experiment. You arrive at the laboratory and the experimenter presents you with a choice. You may have $50 now or, if you wait a week and return, you will be able to receive $75. What do you do? The $50 is yours for the asking now. But if you delay for a week, you’ll get a good deal more. The paradigm is not entirely fanciful; in fact, it mirrors an actual experiment on young children that has been repeated countless times.

In the original experiment a young child is offered one marshmallow or if she is willing to wait while the experimenter steps out of the office for a few minutes, two marshmallows can be taken when he returns. The experimenter says that if she rings a bell on the desk while he is away, he will come quickly back and she can eat one marshmallow but will forfeit the second. Then he leaves the room.

This experiment was first conducted by Walter Michel, a personality/social psychologist, in order to identify the factors that allow some individuals to delay gratification. The results of some of his studies are discussed by Jonah Lehrer in the May 18th New Yorker. Lehrer reports:

“About thirty per cent of the children…successfully delayed gratification until the researcher returned, some fifteen minutes later. These kids wrestled with temptation but found a way to resist.”

The other 70% of the children were unable to resist the taking the marshmallows, cookies or toys among the various other temptations that have been used to explore the phenomena of delayed gratification. Further research has suggested an interesting link between children’s academic performance as teen-agers and their ability to delay. For example,

“…low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavior problems, both in school and at home. They got lower SAT scores (on average two hundred and ten points lower than the kid who could wait)…. …low delaying adults have a significantly higher body-mass index and are more likely to have had problems with drugs.”

Mischel seems to have tapped a fundamental dimension of personality, one capable of predicting a wide range of significant behaviors. The dimension is one of self-control, the ability to control oneself, in particular one's emotions and desires and to bring the long-term consequences of behavior to bear on the choices made in the present.

It is clear that people vary enormously in their ability to control their own behavior. It is also one of the dimensions of a person’s character that seems to be fairly consistent over the long term. But like most other behaviors, it is one that can be learned. Mischel notes that “…as I watched my own kids, I marveled at how they gradually learned how to delay and how that made so many other things possible.”

Mischel reports that a substantial number of individuals who were unable to delay gratification as four-year olds in time became high-delaying adults. He comments, “this is the group I’m most interested in. They have substantially improved their lives….self-control skills can be taught.” Since the ability to delay gratification is also a far better predictor of academic performance than IQ, this suggests a promising technique for boasting the intellectual skills of individuals of all ages.

Current work has turned to new self-control tasks that are more appropriate for testing adults. Following current trends in psychology, other research has focused on the neural correlates of the ability to postpone gratification, a trend that for this observer is of questionable merit. As Mischel notes, “The real question is what can we do with this fMRI data that we couldn’t do before?” This is a question I ask every time I read a study of the neural correlate(s) of some aspect of personality or behavior. Regrettably, they constitute a sizable number of the studies reported in the major journals these days.