Thirty percent of kids studied -- pegged as "high delayers" by the reseachers -- were able to delay their gratification until the researcher's return fifteen minutes later. The others -- [were called] "low delayers" . . . .
The researchers identified the "strategic allocation of attention" as the crucial skill that distinguished high- and low-delayers. High-delayers, for example, found ways to distract themselves by turning their backs on the coveted marshmallow, covering their eyes, playing games, or singing songs. Low-delayers, in contrast, generally couldn't stop themselves from staring at -- and thus thinking about -- the wonderful treat before them.
Tracking their subjects as they grew older, the psychologists found that high-delayers were less likely to experience behavioral problems and more likely to enjoy academic success than their low-delaying counterparts. (Indeed, another researcher found that the ability to delay gratification -- measured, for example, by the choice between taking a dollar right away or two dollars the following week -- was a far better predictor of eighth-graders' academic performance than IQ scores.)
The study also suggests that "strategic allocation of attention" can be taught even at a young age.