New Marshmallow Test: Why Andrew Weiner Would Fail

Last Updated Jun 7, 2011 2:40 PM EDT

I'll bet Rep. Andrew Weiner of New York ate the marshmallow. Ditto for the erstwhile French presidential hopeful Dominique Strauss-Kahn; Arnold Schwarzenegger too.

Those are just the latest on a long list of fallen powerful figures who have one important thing in common with a bunch of children in a famous study at Stanford University: they could not resist temptation, and they paid for it.

In the oft-cited study, kids 4 to 6 were given one marshmallow and told if they did not eat it for 15 minutes they would be given another. Only a third managed to delay gulping down the treat. Follow-up research showed that those who did not give into temptation and earned the second marshmallow went on to score higher on the S.A.T. by an average of 210 points. They also had fewer behavioral problems and more friends, and were better at coping with stressful situations.

This famous test has been imitated and duplicated many times, and it always produces the same results. The latest appears to come from a longitudinal study in Dunedin, New Zealand. Researchers there have been watching 1,000 kids from birth through their early 30s; it just may be the most studied group of humans in history.

Earlier this year, the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health & Development Research Unit published a report stating that kids who at the age of three -- yes, three -- displayed the most self control (perseverance, self-discipline, conscientiousness) were far more likely to be healthy and wealthy in their 30s. Self-control was a greater predictor of future well-being than I.Q. or family history.

According to the Dunedin study, children who scored lower on self-control measures were more likely to have the following outcomes as adults:

· Physical health problems, including poorer lung function, sexually transmitted infections, obesity, high blood pressure, bad cholesterol and dental disease.

· Substance dependence, including tobacco, alcohol, marijuana and harder drugs.

· Difficulty with financial planning, including savings habits, home ownership, investments and retirement planning.

· Difficulty with credit and money management, including bankruptcy, missed payments, credit-card problems and living from paycheck to paycheck.

· Difficulty rearing a child, especially in a single-parent household.

· Trouble with the law, including a criminal record.

The best part of this study is that it shows that even kids who get a late start with things like budgeting or managing an allowance learn enough self control by adulthood to make a big difference in their financial future. In other words, you don't have to be a natural by age three.

Below is a wonderful 10-minute PBS report on the Dunedin study, which sheds light on why no less a child-centered institution than Sesame Street has taken up the battle against financial illiteracy.

It seems nothing is more central to your child's future health and wealth than a thorough grounding in self-control, or delayed gratification. Just ask Rep. Weiner or "DSK." Both were bound for bigger things before they ate the marshmallow.

Photo courtesy CBS Seattle
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  • Dan Kadlec

    Daniel J. Kadlec is an author and journalist whose work appears regularly in Time and Money magazines. He is the former editor of Time’s Generations section, which was written and edited for boomers. Kadlec came to Time from USA Today, where he was the creator and author of the daily column Street Talk, which anchored the newspaper's business coverage. He has co-written three books, including, most recently, With Purpose: Going from Success to Significance in Work and Life. He has won a New York Press Club award and a National Headliner Award for columns on the economy and investing.