Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The health and retirement correlation

The New York Times has a story about a recent study finding that "people who are good at planning their financial future are more likely to take steps to improve their physical health — and then actually become healthier."

I don't find this surprising at all. It seems like replication in another form of the "Stanford marshmallow experiment," where 4-year-old kids were offered a cookie, or donut, or marshmallow, but if they were willing to wait, they would get two of the treats. The kids who waited were later found generally to have better test scores, grades, etc.

When I first heard about this study, my older son N was almost 5 years old, so about a year older than the kids in the original study. Still, I asked him, "Would you rather have one cookie now, or two cookies later?" He immediately responded, "Two cookies later." I asked, "Why?" He said, "Because two is more than one."

A few years later, when my younger son J was 3 years old, we were driving back with take-out Chinese food in the van. The woman at the cash register had given them both a bunch of dinner mints, and my younger son was now fretting, wanting to eat some mints. I said no, not until after eating dinner. He got more and more agitated.

Finally, I said to my older son, "N, you seem to have self-control. Can you teach him some?"

So N said, "J, you need to have self-control."

"No," I said, "I mean, teach him how you have self-control."

After a brief pause, N said, "J, would you rather have one cookie now, or two cookies later?"

Without missing a beat, J said, "One cookie now." (But he stopped crying!)

"Oh." N paused some more. "Okay, would you rather have one cookie now, or 15 cookies later?"

"15 cookies later."

"Okay, then, would you rather have one cookie now, or . . . four cookies later?" [Isn't that cool, N was already figuring out how to narrow down J's tipping point?]

At that point, J lost patience with this line of inquiry and went back to crying about the mints. Fortunately, we were just about home.

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