Tests of delayed gratification, such as the Marshmallow Experiment, show that those who can better delay their gratification have better life outcomes than those who cannot. The children who succumbed to eating the treat while the researcher was out of the room had worse life outcomes than the children who could wait. This was chalked up to cognitive processes by the originator of the test, while individual differences in these cognitive processes also were used as explanations for individual differences between children in the task. However, it doesn’t seem to be that simple. I did write an article back in December of 2015 on the Marshmallow Experiment and how it was a powerful predictor, but after extensive reading into the subject, my mind has changed. New research shows that social trust has a causal effect on whether or not one would wait for the reward—if the individual trusted the researcher he or she was more likely to wait for the other reward than if they did not trust the researcher, in which they were more likely to take what was offered in the first place.
The famous Marshmallow Experiment showed that children who could wait with a marshmallow or other treat in front of them while the researcher was out of the room, they would get an extra treat. The children who could not wait and ate the treat while the researcher was out of the room had worse life outcomes than the children who could wait for the other treat. These lead researchers to the conclusion that the ability to delay gratification depended on ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ cognitive processes. According to Walter Mischel, the originator of the study method, the ‘cool’ system is the thinking one, the cognitive system, which reminds you that you get a reward if you wait, while the ‘hot’ system is the impulsive system, the system that makes you want the treat now and not want to wait for the other treat (Metcalfe and Mischel, 1999).
Some of these participants were followed up on decades later, and those who could better delay their gratification had lower BMIs (Schlam et al, 2014); scored better on the SAT (Shoda, Mischel, and Peake, 1990) and other tests of educational attainment (Ayduk et al, 2000); along with other positive life outcomes. So it seems that placing a single treat—whether it be a marshmallow or another sweet treat—would predict one’s success, BMI, educational attainment and future prospects in life and that there are underlying cognitive processes, between individuals that lead to differences between them. But it’s not that simple.
After Mischel’s studies in the 50s, 60s and 70s on delayed gratification and positive and negative life outcomes (e.g., Mischel, 1958; Mischel, 1961; Mischel, Ebbeson, and Zeiss, 1972) it was pretty much an accepted fact that delaying gratification somehow was related to these positive life outcomes, while the negative life outcomes were partly a result of the lack of ability to delay gratification. Though in 2014, a study was conducted showing that ability to delay gratification depends on social trust (Michaelson et al, 2013).
Using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, (n = 78, 34 male, 39 female and 5 who preferred not to state their gender) completed online surveys and read three vignettes in order—trusty, untrustworthy and neutral—while using a scale of 1-7 to note how likeable, trustworthy, and how sharing their likelihood of sharing. Michaelson et al (2013) write:
Next, participants completed intertemporal choice questions (as in Kirby and Maraković, 1996), which varied in immediate reward values ($15–83), delayed reward values ($30–85), and length of delays (10–75 days). Each question was modified to mention an individual from one of the vignettes [e.g., “If (trustworthy individual) offered you $40 now or $65 in 70 days, which would you choose?”]. Participants completed 63 questions in total, with 21 different questions that occurred once with each vignette, interleaved in a single fixed but random order for all participants. The 21 choices were classified into 7 ranks (using the classification system from Kirby and Maraković, 1996), where higher ranks should yield higher likelihood of delaying, allowing a rough estimation of a subject’s willingness to delay using a small number of trials. Rewards were hypothetical, given that hypothetical and real rewards elicit equivalent behaviors (Madden et al., 2003) and brain activity (Bickel et al., 2009), and were preceded by instructions asking participants to consider each choice as if they would actually receive the option selected. Participants took as much time as they needed to complete the procedures.
When one’s trust was manipulated in the absence of a reward, within the group of subjects influenced their ability to delay gratification, along with how trustworthy one was perceived to be, influenced their ability to delay gratification. So this suggests that, in the absence of rewards, when social trust is reduced, ability to delay gratification would be lessened. Due to the issues of social trust manipulation due to the order of how the vignettes were read, they did a second experiment using the same model using 172 participants (65 males, 63 females, and 13 who chose not to state their gender). Though in this experiment, a computer-generated trustworthy, untrustworthy and neutral face was presented to the participants. They were only paid $.25 cents, though it has been shown that the compensation only affects turnout, not data quality (Burhmester, Kwang, and Gosling, 2011).
In this experiment, each participant read a vignette and there was a particular face attached to it (trustworthy, untrustworthy and neutral), which were used in previous studies on this matter. They found that when trust was manipulated in the absence of a reward between the subjects, this influenced the participants’ willingness and to delay gratification along with the perceived trustworthiness influencing it as well.
Michaelson et al (2013) conclude that the ability to delay gratification is predicated on social trust, and present an alternative hypothesis for all of these positive and negative life outcomes:
Social factors suggest intriguing alternative interpretations of prior findings on delay of gratification, and suggest new directions for intervention. For example, the struggles of certain populations, such as addicts, criminals, and youth, might reflect their reduced ability to trust that rewards will be delivered as promised. Such variations in trust might reflect experience (e.g., children have little control over whether parents will provide a promised toy) and predisposition (e.g., with genetic variations predicting trust; Krueger et al., 2012). Children show little change in their ability to delay gratification across the 2–5 years age range (Beck et al., 2011), despite dramatic improvements in self-control, indicating that other factors must be at work. The fact that delay of gratification at 4-years predicts successful outcomes years or decades later (Casey et al., 2011; Shoda et al., 1990) might reflect the importance of delaying gratification in other processes, or the importance of individual differences in trust from an early age (e.g., Kidd et al., 2012).
Another paper (small n, n = 28) showed that the children’s perception of the researchers’ reliability predicted delay of gratification (Kidd, Palmeri, and Aslin, 2012). They suggest that “children’s wait-times reflected reasoned beliefs about whether waiting would ultimately pay off.” So these tasks “may not only reflect differences in self-control abilities, but also beliefs about the stability of the world.” Children who had reliable interactions with the researcher waited about 4 times as long—12 minutes compared to 3 minutes—if they thought the researcher was trustworthy. Sean Last over at the Alternative Hypothesis uses these types of tasks (and other correlates) to show that blacks have lower self-control than whites, citing studies showing correlations with IQ and delay of gratification. Though, as can be seen, alternative explanations for these phenomena make just as much sense, and with the new experimental evidence on social trust and delaying gratification, this adds a new wrinkle to this debate. (He also shortly discusses ‘reasons’ why blacks have lower self-control, implicating the MAOA alleles. However, I have already discussed this and blaming ‘genes for’ violence/self-control doesn’t make sense.)
Michaelson and Munakata (2016) show more evidence for the relationship between social trust and delaying gratification. When children (age 4 years, 5 months, n = 34) observed an adult as trustworthy, they were able to wait for the reward, compared to when they observed the adult as untrustworthy they ate the treat thinking that, since they observed the adult as untrustworthy, they were not likely to get the second marshmallow than if they waited for the adult to return if they believed him to be untrustworthy. Ma et al (2018) also replicated these findings in a sample of 150 Chinese children aged 3 to 5 years old. They conclude that “there is more to delay of gratification than cognitive capacity, and they suggest that there are individual differences in whether children consider sacrificing for a future outcome to be worth the risk.” Those who had higher levels of generalized trust waited longer, even when age and level of executive functioning were controlled for.
Romer et al (2010) show that people who are more willing to take risks may be more likely to engage in risky behavior that provides insights to that specific individual on why delaying gratification and having patience leads to longer-term rewards. This is a case of social learning. However, people who are more willing to take risks have higher IQs than people who do not. Though SES was not controlled for, it is possible that the ability to delay gratification in this study came down to SES, with lower class people taking the money, while higher class people deferred. Raine et al (2002) showed a relationship between sensation seeking in 3-year-old children from Mauritius, which then was related to their ‘cognitive scores’ at age 11. As usual, parental occupation was used as a measure of ‘social class’, and since SES does not capture all aspects of social class then controlling for the variable does not seem to be too useful. Because a confound here could be that children from higher classes have more of a chance to sensation seek which may cause higher IQ scores due to cognitive enrichment. Either way, you can’t say that IQ ’causes’ delayed gratification since there are more robust predictors such as social trust.
Though the relationship is there, what to make of it? Since exploring more leads to, theoretically, more chances to get things wrong and take risks by being impulsive, those who are more open to experience will have had more chances to learn from their impulsivity, and so learn to delay gratification through social learning and being more open. ‘IQ’ correlating with it, in my opinion, doesn’t matter too much; it just shows that there is a social learning component to delaying gratification.
In conclusion, there are alternative ways to look at the results from Marshmallow Experiments, such as social trust and social learning (being impulsive and seeing what occurs when an impulsive act is carried out may have one learn, in the future, to wait for something). Though these experiments are new and the research is young, it’s very promising that there are other explanations for delayed gratification that don’t have to do with differences in ‘cognitive ability’, but depend on social trust—trust between the child and the researcher. If the child sees the researcher is trustworthy, then the child will wait for the reward, whereas if they see the researcher is not trustworthy, they ill take the marshmallow or whatnot, since they believe the researcher is not trustworthy and therefore won’t stick to their word. (I am also currently reading Mischel’s 2014 book Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control and will have more thoughts on this in the future.)