Imagine you’re in a room, sitting at a table with one marshmallow sitting on a plate. If you wait 15 minutes, you’ll get another one – do you eat the marshmallow, or wait for the sweeter reward?

The test described is the brain child of psychologist Walter Mischel. He developed this study in the late 1960’s and tested it on children at Sanford’s Bing Nursery School. Follow up studies showed that the children who waited for the second treat had a tendency to achieve higher test scores and even had lower BMIs. When you think on it, the simple act of waiting can be linked to patience, self-control and coping with delayed gratification.

See how the kids react to the test in the video below.

Adults are faced with versions of the marshmallow test every day. Do you buy an item you can afford now, or save up for something better? Do you take sandwiches to work one day so you can spend bigger later in the week?

The Marshmallow test works especially well as an analogy for savings. If you have $50 in your account, you can spend it, or leave it in there to earn more marshmallows. Of course the real marshmallow test gives instant gratification, and children are only made to wait 15-20 minutes to double up, whereas $50 in 3% interest account would take 23 years to increase by 100%.

Related: Party your way to savings

The marshmallow test also had another interesting outcome. If the children were given a realistic photograph of a marshmallow to look at, or closed their eyes, they found it much easier not to eat the treat. This could translate to adulthood too: When paper cash is available in a wallet do you spend more than when using your bank card?

What has an effect on whether you eat the marshmallow?

You probably know people who are great at saving, and equally people that instantly seem to spend every pay packet. So what factors control this behaviour? In a study titled “The Origins of Savings Behaviour” Cronqvist and Siegel attempt to give some answers.

They studied identical and fraternal twins and found that genetic variation accounted for around “33% of the variation in spending behaviour”. The jury is still out on how much of your genes influence your overall personality, but if this study is correct then there could be some identifiable behavioural traits that are decided before birth.

Keep a close eye on the piggy

The Cronqvist and Siegel study goes on to state that parenting explains 40-50% of savings behaviour, but this affect reduces significantly as you age, dropping to zero in your 40s. Perhaps adults set children on a certain path, but over the years environmental factors such as wealth and relationships with others then play more of a part. It could be interesting to think on this; whether your parents instilled saving or spending behaviours in you as a child, and if these behaviours have changed with the years.

What could you take from these findings?

Whether genetic or not, there may be certain personality traits that can be identified as contributing towards a tendency to spend or save. Patience may be a virtue, and may also help you achieve savings goals. Avoiding delayed gratification can mean grabbing life by the horns and being a go-getter, but those who are happy with waiting could have more savings by retirement age.

There is certainly no right and wrong answer, but if you are aware of your personality traits that may be affecting your spending behaviour, then should you want to start saving an action plan may be easier to formulate. For example, if you know you can be impatient and feel this is affecting your savings goals, being more aware of this could be a good first step. This article from Psychology Today provides some great tips on becoming more patient.

Finally, there are so many factors that could affect reasoning with the test subjects in addition to the ones above. If you’re interested in reading more, this interview with Walter Mischel from The Atlantic is a great place to start.


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