Thursday, 14 January 2010

The Marshmallow Test, Commitment and Life Success

One of the keys to financial success is controlling desires for immediate gratification by saving instead of spending every penny that comes into our grasp. Such tendencies become visible early in life, it seems.

Long ago a researcher named Walter Mischel tested how well 4 year olds could resist the temptation of one marshmallow now instead of the reward of getting two scant minutes later. The hilarious Kids and the Marshmallow YouTube video re-enactment of the experiment shows how tough it is for kids to resist the urge to gobble up the marshmallow right away.

Some kids are naturally better at it than others. Mischel's and other studies reviewed (see pp 19-21) in the paper Commitment Contracts by Gharad Bryan, Dean Karlan and Scott Nelson of Yale University found that children who are better at deferring gratification are more successful later in life, being more able to concentrate, live with frustration, get higher SAT scores, use drugs less and be perceived to be more competent by parents and peers.

Having a tendency does not necessarily mean an inevitable fate. Humans are wonderfully adaptable and control measures can be put in place to counter such harmful tendencies. This quote from Commitment Contracts is encouraging: "Children were able to wait longer when their attention was shifted, when they could not see the reward, when they were in a cold state (when children were told to think about the abstract qualities of the marshmallow), rather than a hot state (when children were told to think of the taste) and when they were told to be task oriented rather than reward oriented. (Thinking about their aim, rather than what the rewards would be like)"

One direction for correcting and controlling the "I want it now" behaviour that harms not just children but adults too (think of the gap in savings for retirement) is, according to these authors, to put in place Commitments. Commitments can be either hard, with actual costs, or soft, with psychological costs. A hard example: you promise to lose 10kg by July 1st, and you pay someone if you don't achieve that. Soft commitment example: not having junk food in the house.

Dean Karlan believes enough in the principle of making a commitment as an effective way to modify behaviour to have co-founded a special website called StickK where anyone can make a formal Commitment. It seems to be for real. When you sign up, you are contracting to pay and they promise to enforce payment if you do not meet whatever goal it is you yourself define. One of the other co-founders, Ian Ayres, recounts in his book SuperCrunchers how his own successful hard commitment experiment to lose and keep off weight made him a believer too.

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