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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/10407/time-preference-and-marshmallows/

Time Preference and Marshmallows

August 5, 2009 by

Jonah Lehrer’s article DON’T: The secret of self control in a recent issue of the New Yorker describes some fascinating research by on the importance of time preference by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel.

Though he doesn’t call it time preference, Mischel measured children’s ability to choose between some candy now and more candy in a few minutes. Mischel found that children generally have very high time preferences, that there was considerable variability among children. (Friends of mine have estimated their own childrens’ time preference at around 100% per two minutes).

Later in life, Mischel returned to the data to do follow-up studies on the adults he had studied decades before. He found that a relatively higher or lower time preference (within the study group) was consistent over the individual’s life, and that low time preference correlated with greater success in all areas of life, including work, friends, family, substance abuse, and weight control.

This is consistent with the findings of political scientist Edward Banfield whose argued that time preference was the major factor in determining the ability of urban poor people to earn income and maintain employment.

The findings not surprising to Austrian economists, who have demonstrated that societies with a lower average social rate of time preference will accumulate more capital and experience a more rapid rise in their standard of living over time.


Ball August 5, 2009 at 9:49 pm

This reminds me of some kids at a grocery store I used to frequent, buying bulk candy in the isle. They had earned their own money and were commenting on which bags of candy were a “rip-off” and so on. Later, at the checkout stand, there was another kid wailing his head off, trying to get his mother to buy him a single piece of candy.

I suspect a long time preference is a trait learned very early in life.

jason August 5, 2009 at 9:57 pm

I wonder how this correlates to families and genetics? I have a theory that states also influence the genetics of the population through coercion, thus pushing the population to higher time preferences. See, there is another level to our genome called the epigenome that is influenced by your everyday actions, diet and such. Research has determined that this epigenome is passed to children, thus in a weird way sins are passed down to children.

Though the statist interpretation is that, through coercion the epigenome may be altered for the better of the group thus facilitating a modern form of eugenics, I do not think they realize the damage they may be doing to the genome through there violent interference. I do not think they take into account the long term consequences from interference.


Bruce Koerber August 5, 2009 at 10:14 pm

My first encounter with economics left me with an understanding of deferred gratification. That gave me an appreciation of the conceptual nature of economics which quite a few years later was greatly awakened when I learned about macroeconomics from a premier Austrian macroeconomics professor – Dr. Roger Garrison.

Time preference is an economically more accurate and a more precise way of understanding deferred gratification.

Robert Blumen August 5, 2009 at 11:37 pm

The article does raise the possibility that time preference is a genetic trait.

Gil August 6, 2009 at 2:46 am

Such a study is a bit of a bummer – it suggests certain traits are lifelong and can’t really be changed. However, jason, the Spartans were way ahead of you – they would cull the weak babies of the warrior class and (via the Krypteria) cull anyone of the working class who showed any initiative.

newson August 6, 2009 at 4:01 am

“success” sounds boring.

OneSTDV August 6, 2009 at 5:34 am

I still think IQ is a better preditor.

Does the study have data concerning the relationship between time preference and IQ? I imagine time preference requires reasoning skills imperative for high-IQ. I’d be surprised if IQ wasn’t a subset skill of time preference or vice-versa.

I discuss these issues and libertarianism at my blog:


Gil August 6, 2009 at 9:16 am

“I still think IQ is a better predictor.” – OneSTDV.

Which is to say . . .? A simpler question is whether the ability to engage in delayed gratification is genetic or learned behaviour? If is learned behaviour, does the behaviour have to be taught at an early age (before the age of ten) or can the behaviour be learned at any age?

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