From little things… Points of Interest – Summer 2014

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The marshmallow test

This article, by Justin Baiocchi, was originally published in The Northern Daily Leader on 17 January 2015.

This past weekend my wife and I put our four-year-old son, Jack, through the marshmallow test. The test itself is very straightforward – you simply ask your four-year-old (the test is only done once, when your child turns four) if they would like one marshmallow now, or two marshmallows later (with ‘later’ being an undefined period of up to twenty minutes). Somewhat surprisingly, around a third of the four-year-olds who do the test are willing to wait twenty minutes and have two marshmallows, rather than opt for the immediate enjoyment of just one marshmallow. So you’re probably asking yourself what the point of it is? Well, the purpose of the test is to measure self-control. Some of us have it and some of us don’t and around two-thirds of all four-year-olds definitely don’t have it. Many of us struggle to consistently save money, preferring instant gratification through spending over the slow accumulation of savings over time. Others however, have no problems saving money, happy to quietly sock away their savings until they’ve reached their financial goals. The difference between the two all comes down to self-control. And the reason self-control is so important, is that it plays a critical role in determining a range of outcomes related to matters like our health and wealth.

In fact, the level of self-control shown by a four-year old is an incredibly accurate predictor of how their future life is likely to play out. A group of researchers followed 1,000 children from birth until adulthood, with each child’s level of self-control measured using a number of different criteria. It was found that those children with higher levels of self-control were more likely to be richer, healthier, avoid drugs, prison and unplanned pregnancies and be better educated than those children with low levels of self-control. It turns out that your level of self-control as a four-year old is as reliable at predicting the future general direction of your life as is your level of general intelligence or your family’s socio-economic status.

Given that outcomes such as getting an education (stay at home studying rather than partying), keeping healthy (choosing the vegetables over the double-cream chocolate cake) or saving money (putting money into superannuation rather than buying a new mobile phone every year) all require some level of self-control, it’s not hard to see why it has such a strong predictive ability. And as for Jack, how did he do when it came to the marshmallow test? Well, let’s just say that Liz and I may be making quite a few trips to Long Bay Jail in the future.