Will You Be Rich? This Personality Trait Is One of the Biggest Predictors of How Much You Will Earn

Why do some people become richer than others? The ability to delay instant gratification could be one of the most important factors, according to research.

A team at Temple University found that jobs, as well as the level of educational attainment, were the most accurate predictors of how much a person would earn. But they were surprised to learn that putting off gratification was a more important predictor of income than other factors known to affect earning power, such as age, race, ethnicity and height.

The team investigated a concept known as delay discounting, or how a person weighs the benefits of short- and long-term reward. The famous marshmallow test is an oft-cited exploration of this trait. In the original 1990 study at Stanford University, children were given marshmallows and told they could either eat it immediately or wait for a researcher to return and have two marshmallows.

In a follow-up study, the children who waited for the second marshmallow rather than chomping down the first appeared to do better in school, and were more well-adjusted in general. The study was widely interpreted as showing people have inherent, unchangeable personality traits, like stronger willpower. But study author and Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel later clarified the aim was to show gratification can be taught, and social and psychological ramifications could not be ignored when it came to a person's life chances.

The new study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, used machine learning to rank variables that could affect a person's earning power. The researchers used three algorithms to map the relationship between income and age, gender, height, race, geographic location, education, occupation and discounting ability on over 2,500 study participants.

Researchers have investigated the biggest predictors of a person's income, and found the ability to delay gratification was among the most important determinants. Getty Images

To measure their discounting ability, the 2,564 participants took an online test. They were asked to choose between taking $500 immediately or waiting longer for $1,000 at five different delays: one day, one week, one month, six months and a year.

The authors surmised the association between higher income and delayed gratification, although not causal, may come down to a "consequence of the correlation between higher discounting and other undesirable life choices," such as drug abuse. Luckily, the authors said they believed this trait could be taught.

"If you want your child to grow up to earn a good salary, consider instilling in them the importance of passing on smaller, immediate rewards in favor of larger ones that they have to wait for," William Hampton, who was based at Temple University but is now at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, explained in a statement. "This is probably easier said than done, as very few people naturally enjoy waiting, but our results suggest that those who develop the ability to delay gratification are likely investing in their own earning potential."

In addition, the authors highlighted that machine learning offered more accurate results because it mitigated the faults of traditional ways of crunching numbers. The team was able to check and replicate its findings more easily.

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After occupation and education, a person's ZIP code and gender were the most important factors with men earning more on average. Next was delay discounting, followed by age, race, ethnicity and height.

Hampton explained: "All sorts of things predict income.

"We knew that this behavioral variable, delay discounting, was also predictive—but we were really curious how it would stack up against more commonsense predictors like education and age.

"Using machine learning, our study was the first to create a validated rank ordering of age, occupation, education, geographic location, gender, race, ethnicity, height, age and delay discounting in income prediction."

The authors acknowledged the scope of the findings are limited by the fact the participants were purposefully only based in the U.S., and different countries could see different patterns.

"I would love to see a replication of this study in another culture. I also would be very interested in future studies aiming to reduce delay discounting," said Hampton. "There is much debate about whether delay discounting is a stable trait or whether it is malleable—longitudinal studies could help settle that."

Eugenio Proto, professor of economics at Bristol University, U.K., was not involved in the study but conducted similar research which indicated intelligent people were more successful.

Commenting on the new research, he told Newsweek: "More patient individuals have higher cognitive ability, so in this sense their findings are consistent with ours. This is probably due to the fact that they are more controlled because they have higher emotional intelligence.

"More controlled individuals have less tendency to engage in bad behaviors like they say, but also [they] may be more prone to investment yielding high return in the long run and, like we emphasized in our research, they might cooperate more efficiently with others, especially when interactions are repeated."

Angela Carter, of the University of Sheffield Management School, U.K. who also did not work on the study, called it "interesting" but highlighted it was limited by the fact the sample was relatively small and from one country.

"I would like to see replication before I got excited about the findings," she said, arguing the outcomes on delayed gratification are not unexpected given the main predictors.

This article has been updated with comment from Professor Eugenio Proto​ and Angela Carter.