A recent study done by a team of researchers at Temple University suggests that the ability to delay gratification is one of the most important indicators of future success, even beyond other factors often correlated with success such as ethnicity, height, race, and age. The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology and it utilized machine learning algorithms to determine which variables were most likely to impact a person’s future success, success defined here as an individual’s earning power.
What Is Delay Discounting?
The researchers who conducted the study utilized three different algorithms to analyze variables correlated with earning potential and determine which variables had the highest correlation with earning. These variables included things like height, race, age, gender, education level, geographic location, occupation and discounting ability. Delay discounting is the ability to analyze the cost/benefits of long-term and short-term rewards opportunities. The researchers collected the data from over 2500 participants who took an online test. To measure the ability to delay gratification, the participants were asked whether they would take $500 dollars immediately or take $1000 dollars at one of five different levels of delay. The periods of delay were a day, a week, a month, half a year or an entire year.
While the researchers believe there isn’t necessarily a causal mechanism linking the two things (delayed gratification and higher income), there is some mechanism that links the two. Specifically, the researchers hypothesize that higher delay discounting could be correlated with a decreased desire to engage in negative life choices (such as the abuse of drugs or alcohol).
William Hampton, a researcher from Temple University, explains that parents looking to increase their child’s chance of having a good salary may want to instill in them the value of passing on smaller rewards for larger ones in the future. Though he acknowledges that this is easier said than done, as people have a natural aversion to waiting around for things. Nonetheless, Hampton says that developing the ability to delay gratification is probably one of the best ways that people can increase earning potential.
Ranking Predictive Variables
The researchers found that the variables which were the most predictive of earning potential were occupation and education. After this, gender and zip code were most closely linked with income, and following this was delay discounting. A person’s age, race, ethnicity, and height came after this. Hampton explains that while many different variables are correlated with income, they were especially curious about how delay discounting was correlated with it. They knew the variable was predictive in nature, but they weren’t sure how it compared to the predictive strength of other variables.
Hampton explains that the machine learning algorithms the researchers employed were able to more accurately discern correlations between variables over traditional methods of finding correlations, enabling the team to replicate the experiment and check its findings with much less effort. The team used a machine learning model validation method called K-folds Cross Validation to repeatedly run the correlational experiment on different chunks of data, which helped make sure their model was more robust and that it was genuinely picking up on meaningful correlations and not simply adapting to noise patterns in the data (a phenomenon called overfitting).
“By iteratively testing our findings from one subset of the data on the remaining data, we test the robustness of our results and mitigate pitfalls such as overfitting that can hamper more traditional statistical approaches such as linear regression,” write the authors of the study.
Hampton explains that their study was the first to create a ranking of the influence that variables like delay discounting, education, and gender have on an individual’s income. Hampton explained that there is some debate amongst researchers as to whether gratification delay is a malleable or stable trait, if it can be taught or if it is engrained.
Similar research, conducted by Eugenio Proto, a professor of economics research at Bristol University, indicated those who have a higher cognitive ability in general (are more intelligent) tend to be more successful and enjoy a higher income. Proto says that the new study supports the Bristol study, adding that higher emotional intelligence is a possible explanation for why successful people are able to delay gratification. Proto expands on this idea, saying that controlled individuals are less likely overall to engage in behaviors that will damage their future and they could be more likely to choose high-investment/high-return strategies that will pay off over time. Such individuals also tend to cooperate better with others, Proto says, especially when interactions between these individuals happen again and again.
What About The Marshmallow Test?
A particularly interesting aspect of the new study is that it seems to support the conclusions of the infamous Marshmallow Test. The Marshmallow Test was a test run at Stanford University in the 60s, which aimed to measure children’s ability to delay gratification. The researchers left children alone in an empty room with a marshmallow, telling them that they could eat the marshmallow now or wait for a number of minutes and have two marshmallows. The researchers tracked the 90 or so children who participated in the study over the next couple decades and during the follow-up, they found that the children who were able to resist the marshmallow long enough to get a second one were substantially more likely to have lower BMIs, higher SAT scores, and generally be more successful.
Since the marshmallow test was first done, other researchers have challenged the results of the study and subsequent similar studies. Tyler Watts, an early development specialist at NYU, conducted a study that examined how much weight the marshmallow test/ability to delay gratification had on the future success of children. Watts and colleagues conducted a study with a larger sample than the Stanford study (around 900 children) and found that while an ability to delay gratification is important to a person’s success, this ability itself seems to be shaped by things like a child’s economic, social, and genetic background.
The research done by Watts and colleagues does seem to imply that altering a child’s social and economic environment could help children develop their ability to delay gratification. Something could be changing in regards to the social environment of children, as millennials were able to wait two minutes longer on average than children tested in the 80s, suggesting that children may be getting better at delay discounting. Watts notes that while the marshmallow test remains an important and insightful test, it’s not clear how other factors are influencing delay discounting ability.
This complicated interplay between variables is what Hampton’s study set out to shed some light on, and Hampton says that while recent research regarding delay discounting has suggested some other possible factors that could impact success, their study is the first to rank these features. The researchers acknowledge that the study was limited by the test population being only from the United States, as different countries could see different strengths of correlations with the different variables. Hampton says that future research will help shed light on this debate.