Marshmallow Experiment: Temptation and Productivity: A Field Experiment with Children
Abstract (Via Bucciol, Alessandro, Daniel Houser, and Marco Piovesan @ HBS)
Substantial evidence from psychology suggests that resisting temptation (exercising self-control) in one domain subsequently reduces one’s capacity to regulate behavior in other domains. One reason is that people have limited self-regulatory resources, and self-regulatory failure occurs when these resources become overwhelmed. This paper provides evidence that this same mechanism can lead to reduced economic productivity subsequent to exposure to temptation. Using a design inspired by the classic “Marshmallow Test,” we report data from a field experiment in which children between the ages of 6 and 13 were exposed (or not) to a consumption temptation. We use these ages to take advantage of the well-established fact that the self-regulatory resources of younger children are more easily depleted than those of older children. We find that, subsequent to exposure to temptation, productivity of younger children is significantly detrimentally impacted, while that of older children remains essentially unchanged. To our knowledge, this is the first rigorous demonstration that one need not succumb to temptation in order for it to detrimentally impact one’s economic productivity.