UW psychology professor Yuichi Shoda honored for famous long-term study on delayed gratification

Yuichi Shoda

Yuichi Shoda

University of Washington psychology professor Yuichi Shoda has been honored for his ongoing participation in a well-known -- and perhaps slightly misunderstood -- long-term study about delayed gratification.

The honor is called the Golden Goose Award , and is given by the Association of American Universities , together with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Science Coalition and other agencies.

This year, Shoda is one of three psychologists honored for a famous longitudinal research project that has come to be called “the marshmallow study.” The other two being honored are Walter Mischel , now of Columbia University; and Philip Peake , now of Smith College.

The study, started in the 1960s and funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, measured the ability of children 4 to 5 years old to delay gratification. They were given the choice between a single marshmallow they could eat right away or two marshmallows for which they would have to wait.

The researchers published their findings in 1988, and found a significant correlation between how long children were able to wait for the treat and how competent they were later as young adults. Those who showed the ability to wait, the study found, tended to be more socially and academically competent as adolescents. The participants, now well into adulthood, have been evaluated in the ongoing study ever since.

Shoda was a first-year graduate student at Stanford University in the 1980s when his involvement with the famous study began. He said his contribution to the work, aside from data analysis, was the notion that not all waiting behaviors mean the same thing. What they term “instrumental waiting” is the waiting directly for a greater reward, but there is also a less-defined type of waiting that is “more like over-control, or waiting when it’s not necessary to wait.

More recently, he was principal investigator of a National Science Foundation grant that began to look at brain functioning, and that resulted in a couple of papers, one of them in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).”

While pleased by the honor, Shoda expressed concern about media coverage of the study over the years, and the incorrect notion that parents could predict their children’s fate by doing the study themselves.

“I like to emphasize that the relationships we are finding are far from perfect. And there is a lot of room for change. In fact, many of the preschoolers who did not wait for the treat turned out to be perfectly happy, successful adults. What is most exciting is the discovery of a variety of mental strategies that can turn an otherwise difficult waiting period into something that is doable. And that people can learn such skills.”
- Yuishi Shoda, UW professor of psychology

“So, every time I have a chance I like to emphasize that the relationships we are finding are far from perfect. And there is a lot of room for change. In fact, many of the preschoolers who did not wait for the treat turned out to be perfectly happy, successful adults. What is most exciting is the discovery of a variety of mental strategies that can turn an otherwise difficult waiting period into something that is doable. And that people can learn such skills.”

The Golden Goose Award is a sort of reply to the late Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire ‘s famous Golden Fleece Awards that targeted federal spending, often for scientific research, that the senator considered wasteful. The Golden Goose Award was created in 2012 as a sort of reply to Proxmire’s dubious honor, seeking to highlight “seemingly obscure, federally funded research” that has led to major breakthroughs in biomedical research, medical treatments or computing and technologies.

Shoda, who earned his undergraduate degree at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and his doctorate at Columbia University, joined the UW in 1996.

He noted also the seeming irony that many funding sources interested in immediate applications are unlikely to support such research as this long-term work, because they can’t promise that it will pay off.

He suggested funding agencies -- not unlike those children five decades back battling the temptations of immediate gratification -- should fund basic research in the public interest, “and be prepared for the possibility that it may not lead to anything. But if we don’t fund such research, no breakthroughs can be made.”

“It’s a gamble,” he added. “But if one out of 100 basic research projects you fund results in an amazing breakthrough, to my mind it’s worthwhile.”

The next challenge for this research, he said, is to study those whose behavior did in fact change -- who did not wait for treats as children yet became happy adults, and others for whom the reverse is true.

The three recipients will receive their honor in a ceremony Sept. 17 in Washington, D.C., in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress.