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The one skill that's most connected to being wealthy

MarketWatch logo MarketWatch 6/09/2018 Alessandra Malito

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Race, age, ethnicity and height have all been shown to affect a person’s income, but want to know which factor is even better at determining future affluence? The ability to delay instant gratification.

Researchers at Temple University in Philadelphia ranked the most important factors in determining affluence. Occupation, education and location and gender topped the list, but delaying instant gratification beat out many of the more traditional signals, including age, race, ethnicity and height. Data for the study, published this week in Frontiers in Psychology, was limited to the United States and included 2,500 participants of various ages, locations and income levels.

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Why might the ability to delay gratification (also known as delay discounting) affect income? The Temple University research did not establish a direct cause and effect link between delaying gratification and income, but the researchers had a few theories on the relationship. A tendency to indulge in instant gratification has been associated with the abuse of addictive substances including cigarettes, alcohol and opiates, they noted. When people can’t imagine themselves benefiting from future rewards, they may get derailed from goals like pursuing education, which can shut them out of lucrative careers, they wrote. People who can’t delay gratification also have less cognitive control, which inhibits creative and productive thinking. 

“Put simply, if people can vividly imagine themselves in the future with larger rewards, they are more likely to be patient,” the researchers said in their report.

Whether the ability to delay gratification is an innate trait or a skill that can be learned is up for debate, the researchers noted. If it can be learned, it’s worth trying to teach both adults and children this skill, the authors said.

“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,” said William Hampton, the study’s lead author, who now works at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland.

Delaying gratification is one of those lessons students should learn in the classroom, but very rarely do. The Marshmallow Test, developed at Stanford University in the 1960s, is perhaps the most well-known study on this. In the experiment, children were directed to sit in a private room with a marshmallow placed in front of them. The researchers offered them a deal — if the children didn’t eat the marshmallow when the researchers left, they’d get a second marshmallow. If the children ate the marshmallow, they wouldn’t get another.

Most children gave in and ate the first marshmallow, but researchers found in follow-up studies that those who didn’t grew up to have higher SAT scores and lower levels of substance abuse and obesity. They were better at managing stress and had better social skills too.

But new research has called into question the original marshmallow test’s implications.

A study published earlier this year by researchers at New York University and the University of California, Irvine, restaged the experiment and found the likelihood of children waiting for a second marshmallow depended largely on their social and economic backgrounds. Those factors, not some innate ability to delay gratification, determined their future success, researchers found. 

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