the stanford marshmallow experiment vs. all of sociological stratification research



Does psychological research toast sociological status attainment research?

Arnold Kling wrote a post on the infamous Stanford marshmallow experiment: a bunch of 4 year olds were given the choice to either eat 1 marshmallow, or wait five minutes and get two instead. Fast forward to age 18 – the self-controlled kids have an average combined SAT score about 210 points higher than the impulsive kids.

That’s amazing!! A single, one minute observation of a child’s impulsiveness at age 4 is a bigger predictor of academic ability than race (the current black/white gap is about 100 points), gender (about a 30 point gap between men and women), and SES. Self-control has an even bigger effect than IQ (10 IQ points – one standard deviation – only boosts you about 100 points or so)!

Any self-respecting sociologist should be shocked by this result. We spend so much time arguing about how contextual factors – such as race or class – have a big impact on school outcomes, when these are really small potatoes compared to self-control. Or at the very least, we have a fairly good reason to believe that maybe the nexus of educational attainment is how social contexts allow children to learn enough emotional control so they can work through complex cognitive tasks. I’d be interested in knowing how hard core status attainment folks might react to this research…

Written by fabiorojas

October 8, 2007 at 1:43 am

Posted in education, fabio, psychology

13 Responses

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  1. One of the main reasons that I have been enthusiastic about genotypic measures in social science reesarch is that I think it can help us to better understand the role of impulsivity-slash-executive-function-slash-self-control in social stratification. I always teach the marshmallow experiment when I teach social psych (although someone told me awhile ago that it was actually either a cookie or pretzel, and I’ve been meaning to look it up again).



    October 8, 2007 at 2:43 am

  2. Jeremy, would you say the average ed or soc researcher has absorbed this lesson? Why not? I had never heard of such research and I don’t think it was on the Chicago strat syllabus, but it seems insanely important.



    October 8, 2007 at 2:46 am

  3. Well if it’s a pretzel that changes everything.



    October 8, 2007 at 3:10 am

  4. Has there been an attempt at genotyping time preferences? Do we even know what sequence to look at?


    Naadir Jeewa

    October 8, 2007 at 4:20 am

  5. It was a small marshmallow, a small pretzel stick, or a colored poker chip. But be careful in interpreting this study, as provocative as it seems to be: the correlation between delay time and SAT scores was statistically significant in only 2 of 8 conditions, and the sample sizes were quite small. The authors write, “For example, in the diagnostic condition, the 95% confidence interval for the correlation of preschool delay time with SAT verbal score ranges from .10 to .66, and with SAT quantitative score, the confidence interval ranges from .29 to .76. The value and importance given to SAT scores in our culture make caution essential before generalizing from the present study; at the very least, further replications with other populations, cohorts, and testing conditions seem necessary next steps.” Also, the paper that Kling cites — Shoda, Mischel & Peake (1990) — does not report means, just the correlations.



    October 8, 2007 at 4:52 am

  6. The general finding, that self-discipline is more important than cognitive ability, is confirmed by several studies by Heckman which use very different methodologies.



    October 8, 2007 at 8:19 pm

  7. Are we to believe that we are born with a given level of self-discipline or impulsivity that is not influenced by our position in the social structure or by our immediate social environments?
    One could write an equivalent blog entry pointing to a study showing that age 10 IQ is an incredibly good predictor of various important outcomes at age 40, and ask why we’re not all simply studying IQ instead of race, occupations, neighborhoods, etc. I’m not saying that traits like impulsivity are unimportant, but they should not be pitted versus “all strat research.”



    October 9, 2007 at 6:19 pm

  8. Can you tell me where to find the video of the study? I teach high school child development and want to use this with my classes.
    Thank you!
    Sharon Allen


    Sharon Allen

    January 30, 2008 at 11:51 pm

  9. Can you please tell me where I might be able to purchase the video of the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment?



    February 10, 2008 at 7:03 pm

  10. Hi, Sharon. I’d recommend contacting the authors of the study directly. Dr. Shoda did the experiment:

    best of luck.



    February 10, 2008 at 7:56 pm

  11. Thank you so much for your help–that’s what I will do!



    February 18, 2008 at 3:31 pm

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