Study: A Childhood Need for Immediate Gratification Predicts Adult Obesity

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Mastering self-control at an early age correlates with decreased obesity as an adult.

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PROBLEM: In what has become known as "the marshmallow test" of delayed gratification, researchers in the 1960s developed a novel way to measure self-control among children. Having recruited preschoolers from a university daycare, scientists presented each child with one marshmallow. They were then told they could either eat the one they had or wait an unspecified amount of time and be rewarded with an additional marshmallow. Various follow-up studies on delayed gratification have been performed on the results since the project's conclusion. This particular study attempted to determine what correlation, if any, existed between the self-control of the children at age 4 and the rate of obesity among the now adult participants.

METHODOLOGY: Researchers sent surveys to 306 participants in the original gratification study in two follow-up mailings. Of those, 164 responded with a report about their own height and weight. The average age of all respondents was 39. More than 94 percent had graduated from college or held advanced degrees. Slightly more than half of respondents were women.

RESULTS: According to the self reports (which should naturally be treated with some skepticism), researchers detected a correlation between a child's level of self-control 30 years ago and lower body-mass index among the respondents today. Women generally reported a lower BMI than men, but how long the children were able to hold off gratification had an even stronger link to weight than did sex. For every minute that a child postponed gratification, the researchers noticed a 0.2-point decrease in BMI among the grown participants.

CONCLUSION: Those who were most able to resist instant gratification as children had the best likelihood of maintaining a healthy weight as adults, even 30 years separated from their experience.

IMPLICATION: The dietary choices we make as adults have an acute impact on our waistlines, but our propensity for delayed gratification appears to stem at least in part from our character as youths. 

SOURCE: The full study, "Preschoolers' Delay of Gratification Predicts Their Body Mass 30 Years Later," is published in the journal Pediatrics.

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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