Is it really self-control? Examining the predictive power of the delay of gratification task

Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2013 Jul;39(7):843-55. doi: 10.1177/0146167213482589. Epub 2013 Apr 12.


This investigation tests whether the predictive power of the delay of gratification task (colloquially known as the "marshmallow test") derives from its assessment of self-control or of theoretically unrelated traits. Among 56 school-age children in Study 1, delay time was associated with concurrent teacher ratings of self-control and Big Five conscientiousness-but not with other personality traits, intelligence, or reward-related impulses. Likewise, among 966 preschool children in Study 2, delay time was consistently associated with concurrent parent and caregiver ratings of self-control but not with reward-related impulses. While delay time in Study 2 was also related to concurrently measured intelligence, predictive relations with academic, health, and social outcomes in adolescence were more consistently explained by ratings of effortful control. Collectively, these findings suggest that delay task performance may be influenced by extraneous traits, but its predictive power derives primarily from its assessment of self-control.

Keywords: conscientiousness; construct validity; delay of gratification; effortful control; impulsivity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Impulsive Behavior*
  • Inhibition, Psychological
  • Intelligence
  • Internal-External Control*
  • Male
  • Personality*
  • Power, Psychological*
  • Reward*
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Time Factors