Leadership

Why Gen Z responds differently to the success-predicting 'Marshmallow Test' than you would have

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Rick Friedman | Getty Images

As it turns out, no matter how unlikely it may seem, your 7-year-old nephew with the iPad might be more successful than you one day.

At least that's what the findings of John Protzko, a postdoctoral scholar from the University of California, Santa Barbara, would indicate. He analyzed 50 years of replications of the iconic marshmallow study and concluded that children, generation after generation, are growing increasingly better at delaying gratification, an established predictor of success down the line.

In the task, which has been conducted time and time again since its invention by psychologist Walter Mitchel in 1968, Protzko tells CNBC Make It that a child is given three pieces of his favorite candy by an experimenter.

The experimenter then leaves the room, but not before telling the child that if he can wait for him to return, he can eat two of them. If the child can't wait, he can ring a bell to signal the experimenter to come back and only have one. (Some kids just eat the marshmallows right away—none are older than 10).

How long the child can wait indicates how well he can delay gratification. And apparently, over time, kids are getting better and better at holding out for that second piece of candy.

Notably, there are a number of variations of this test, many of which offered interesting insights, like one where children are supposed to pretend that they are Superman or another where kids are given art supplies by experimenters they feel various levels of trust with. "But we don't use that data," says Protzko. He stuck to the single version of the experiment.

And his finding bodes well for Generation Z and those to follow. The reason: Being better at delaying gratification in the task has been shown to be "associated with positive life outcomes decades later," says the report, such as higher academic achievement, lower likelihood of abusing drugs and healthier body weights.

This finding reflects a familiar narrative, one that has been popularized repeatedly in different versions: get through years of grueling medical school before becoming doctor; practice a craft during the off hours of a low-paying job before you catch your break; commit to something for years aware that you won't master it until the 10,000th hour.

Though the benefits of delaying gratification are intuitive, the trend seen here is not. In fact, it came as a surprise to 84 percent of the 260 cognitive development experts Protzko surveyed, who predicted that kids now would be worse than ever at holding out for two treats.

After all, can a child go eight minutes without a dopamine rush from a text? Haven't smartphones destroyed a generation? I mean, kids these days, right?

This popular attitude, say actual scientists, stems from the Kids These Days Effect. Your memory about your own childhood is faulty, and your perception of your "abilities in childhood are unduly influenced by [your] current abilities."

"It always seems to be the new technology that people bring up," says Protzko. "Now kids have cell phones and tablets. When I was growing up, everyone was complaining because we had video games consoles, and before then it was TV, and before then it was radio." Complaining about the youth of the day is nothing new.

This explains the mispredictions. The effect Protzko can't explain is the other: as to why kids are getting better at delaying gratification.

He does know, however, that the result is matched by a second astounding finding: gradual increases in IQ score. So, not only is your Gen Z nephew going to be more successful, he might just be smarter, too.

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