Why do some people become richer than others? The ability to delay instant gratification could be one of the most important factors, according to research.
A team at Temple University found that jobs, as well as the level of educational attainment, were the most accurate predictors of how much a person would earn. But they were surprised to learn that putting off gratification was a more important predictor of income than other factors known to affect earning power, such as age, race, ethnicity and height.
The team investigated a concept known as delay discounting, or how a person weighs the benefits of short- and long-term reward. The famous marshmallow test is an oft-cited exploration of this trait. In the original 1990 study at Stanford University, children were given marshmallows and told they could either eat it immediately or wait for a researcher to return and have two marshmallows.
In a follow-up study, the children who waited for the second marshmallow rather than chomping down the first appeared to do better in school, and were more well-adjusted in general. The study was widely interpreted as showing people have inherent, unchangeable personality traits, like stronger willpower. But study author and Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel later clarified the aim was to show gratification can be taught, and social and psychological ramifications could not be ignored when it came to a person’s life chances.
The new study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, used machine learning to rank variables that could affect a person’s earning power. The researchers used three algorithms to map the relationship between income and age, gender, height, race, geographic location, education, occupation and discounting ability on over 2,500 study participants.
Researchers have investigated the biggest predictors of a person’s income, and found the ability to delay gratification was among the most important determinants.
To measure their discounting ability, the 2,564 participants took an online test. They were asked to choose between taking $500 immediately or waiting longer for $1,000 at five different delays: one day, one week, one month, six months and a year.
The authors surmised the association between higher income and delayed gratification, although not causal, may come down to a “consequence of the correlation between higher discounting and other undesirable life choices,” such as drug abuse. Luckily, the authors said they believed this trait could be taught.
“If you want your child to grow up to earn a good salary, consider instilling in them the importance of passing on smaller, immediate rewards in favor of larger ones that they have to wait for,” William Hampton, who was based at Temple University but is now at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, explained in a statement. Read more