A surprising predictor of high-income attainment is the ability to delay gratification, or refuse a smaller sooner reward for a larger reward in the future. The 1960’s study on this topic is called the Marshmallow Test. In the study, researchers tested preschoolers by putting one marshmallow in front of them.
Then, the researchers told them that they can get a second one only if they can go 15 minutes without eating the first one. Then they followed up with those children years later and found that the kids who waited for the larger reward were much more successful later in life, as measured by standardized test scores.
A more recent study in 2018 sought to more closely study the links between delayed gratification and its influence on income. Researchers recruited thousands of adults over age 25 of all educational levels, races and ethnicities, occupations and zip codes and asked them to do a delay discounting task where they were asked to choose either a smaller amount of money now or a larger amount of money in the future in increments of 1 day, 1 week, 1 month,6 months and 1 year.
If they picked the immediate reward, the next choice was for an amount half the first amount and so on until it got to zero. If they chose the delayed reward, the next question offered them an amount that was higher and so on up to $1000.
They then correlated the results with the self-reported income of each participant.
In addition to the delayed gratification test, they also looked at other correlations between income and factors such as occupation, race, educational attainment, zip code, ethnicity, age, height and gender to see which characteristic was most associated with high income.
As you might have expected, occupation was the most important, followed by education and zip code (since a person’s income often dictates where they live). But after those indications of wealth and earning potential, the next most important factor in income was the ability to delay gratification by the longest amount (one year). In fact, this ability was more predictive of wealth than age, race, ethnicity and height.
The bottom line is if you want to be able to earn lots of moolah, being able to delay immediate rewards for a larger payoff in the future is key.