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New findings from old Stanford 'marshmallow' experiment: delayed gratification is linked to weighing less

Children play in the water at Granary Square to keep cool in the hot conditions July 25, 2012 in London, England.
Children play in the water at Granary Square to keep cool in the hot conditions July 25, 2012 in London, England.
Phil Walter/Getty Images

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Between 1968 and 1974, researchers from Stanford University studied delayed gratification in 650 four-year-olds by offering them a single marshmallow. Once given the marshmallow, the children were told they could eat it immediately or wait a few minutes and receive two instead. Then they were left alone in the room.

On average, most children didn’t wait for more than three minutes, but close to 30 percent managed to wait 15 minutes for the researcher to return with their second marshmallow. As the children have grown up, follow up studies have been conducted yielding some interesting results: the children who were able to delay gratification when they were four generally scored higher on the SAT, exhibited more social competence, and were better at planning and handling stress. But the latest research, conducted by researchers from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, has found that the children who waited are less likely to be overweight or obese as adults.

For each minute the subjects delayed gratification as children, there was a 0.2 point decrease in their body mass index. While the difference was not astonishingly large, University of Wisconsin researchers said the presence of such a correlation after so many years should be noted. Other research has also indicated that delayed gratification can be taught, meaning children can actually learn to have more willpower.

Predicting Adolescent Cognitive and Self-Regulatory Competencies From Preschool Delay of Gratification


How can these lessons be applied to children today? Does this means there’s light at the end of the tunnel that is America’s obesity epidemic?


Tanya Schlam, Ph.D., Assistant Scientist at the Unviersity of Wisconsin Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention; co-researcher on the Stanford marshmallow follow up study, “Preschoolers’ Delay of Gratification Predicts their Body Mass Index 30 Years Later”

Dr. Harvey Karp, pediatrician, child development specialist, and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, USC’s Keck School of Medicine