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Season 8 | Episode 5

Fate and Fortune

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This hour, we question what decides the trajectory of our lives -- individual force of will, or fate?

If destiny isn't written in the stars, could it be written in our genes? Kids struggle to resist marshmallows, and their ability to holdout at age 4 turns out to predict how successful they're likely to be the rest of their lives. And an unexpected find in a convent archive uncovers early warning signs for dementia in the writings of 18-year-olds.


Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the kids who performed better on the marshmallow test had higher GPAs in high school and went to better colleges. Those elements were not a part of Mischel’s original study. The audio has been adjusted to reflect this fact.

Your Future in a Marshmallow

Fate may not be written in the stars, but what if it’s written in our genes? First, Paul Auster raises the specter of "rhyming events," his term for those spooky coincidences that seem more than ordinary mathematical flukes.

Then, a seemingly simple experiment devised by Walter Mischel ...

Comments [22]

Singled Out

Malcolm Gladwell complicates the tug of war between destiny and determination. On one hand, he doesn't think Gifted and Talented Education Programs can or should pick out high-achievers at age 8. But on the other hand, he says aspiring hockey players born after the first 3 months of the year ...

Comments [6]

Searching for Clues

Agatha Christie's clever detective novels may reveal more about the inner workings of the human mind than she intended: according to Dr. Ian Lancashire at the University of Toronto, the Queen of Crime left behind hidden clues to the real-life mysteries of human aging. Dr. Kelvin Lim and Dr. Serguei ...

Comments [8]

Comments [46]

A from CA from Northern California

Off topic: I'd love to donate to Radiolab anonymously. I don't need any prizes or anything, but would love to avoid having to receive expensive glossy brochures in the future (save trees, and so on).
Is there such an option? I tried, but somehow it's not working right now (not finding radiolab), and besides they take a fee for services. I'd love to donate that fee to radiolab directly.

Oct. 03 2016 07:45 PM

Thank you so much for this show! I am a Montessori teacher and have been plagued with people who are stuck on giving kids the 'gifted' title... I tell my peers, parents and students that everyone has gifts to share. It is a daily challenge for me because I teach in a public Montessori school that has to abide by state mandates. In the state of Ohio, public schools are mandated to provide 90 minutes of specialized instruction for students who are identified as 'gifted'. My students that are identified are taken out of my room and the rest of my kids feel left out. It takes away from EVERYTHING I try to instill in my classroom environment, that we all have gifts and strengths that we need to share. The term 'gifted' has become a title of entitlement that leaves the rest of my kids feeling less than what they are: perfect and developing as they should!
What I observe about the students that are identified as gifted, is that they come from nourishing families and were in the Montessori program since they were three, which means they were exposed to lots of things at an early age, and most have been reading since they were 3 or 4, but just as your guest explained, the rest of my students will get to those stages of academic development at some point! Each and every one of my students have enormous potential! Another point that is never pointed out to parents is, that a lot of students who are considered gifted, also have deficiencies in other areas, which could be considered a learning disability, I never hear that pointed out in 'gifted' conversations... this program validated my opinion. Thank you again.

Oct. 02 2016 03:51 PM
Soni from Brooklyn, NY

The issue with this marshmallow test is that it has not controlled for whether the children had what is known as a secure attachment with a primary caretaker, which would give more information as to why some children can delay gratification. In other words, the study has not looked into whether the reason some children can delay gratification is because they have a secure attachment which forms a secure sense that the child can trust that he/she will later receive the marshmallows promised to him/her. You can't know whether the difference between how well the children could delay gratification is because in their experience they have trustworthy adults who would follow through with what was promised.

When Michel's daughter was able to delay/wait for the candy, did it have more to do with the fact that she believed he would honor his promise because he was a trustworthy caretaker, or was it an innate or intrinsic genetic ability on his daughter's part? There's no way to account why it is that some children could wait and others can't. You need to control for this huge factor or prior experience (i.e. secure attachment). If you have a child whose experience has been that he is told to wait only to find that in the end he doesn't get what he is promised, what are the odds that he's going to learn to delay? Or that he's going to want to? Survival is much more important, and if a child doesn't believe that he's going to receive more marshmallows if he waits, he's going to eat the one immediately available.

Oct. 01 2016 12:33 PM
Daniel from Toronto

Did the delayed gratification experiment control for how hungry the kids were before the test? Maybe the ones who could not wait were just hungrier?

Oct. 11 2014 11:54 AM
Andy from Fort Collins, CO

Woke up with a Ry Cooder song stuck in my head, then at work I listen to the Fate and Fortune podcast to hear the very song I awoke to. Paul Auster rhyming event? It definitely got my attention.

Oct. 02 2014 04:26 PM
Deborah Burton from Boston, MA

I believe the "oreo cookie" test was actually testing something besides delayed gratification--which may seriously affect the conclusions drawn. Those children who waited for the extra cookie acted on a trust of authority, which the others may not have shared. For instance, a child may have thought, perhaps I won't get another cookie from this guy; I should take the one in hand. Then, the question becomes: why do children who may not trust authority do more poorly in life? Is it because they have untrustworthy parents (which might affect success too)? Were they abused in some way? Or are they just being logical (i.e., one cannot predict the future in any case)?

Big reveal: I would definitely take the first cookie!

Feb. 11 2014 10:39 PM
Transforming: ISET0078878 using INT All Users from Washington, Virginia

A correction on a story featuring Jonah Lehrer! What are the odds?

Feb. 10 2014 12:43 PM
Tom Carson from Washington DC

The program's content was quite engaging. Wonderful stories. But, I believe the program was flawed in its approach to "Fate." The content dealt primarily with physical attributes that could predetermine later outcomes (delay gratification in children, idea complexity in the early writings of nuns). Not clear here whether the presenters view these as shaped by genetics or social circumstance. Avoiding causality to favor association is a job half done.

Fate, at least in the minds of most, concerns how forces external to the individual may determine life outcomes. The hand of god, the alignment of stars, the limits imposed by social constructs . . . A bit more time spent in the social sciences may do the presenters some good here.

Feb. 09 2014 01:30 PM
avid fan from SF East Bay

1st, must say, this is my favorite program on NPR now, because it is engaging, witty, stimulating and informative. Missed earlier part of program so only commenting about Searching for Clues part. In this part you intersected 2 subjects of abiding interest to me--Agatha Christie, her life and writing,& the Nuns Study.

The part about complexity of expressiveness and senile dementia (can we say for sure Alzheimer's?) relating to Christie's trend toward vagueness,
not just in Elephants Can Remember but in most of her later writing seems
to jump out if you read her stories while noticing when they were written.

Strongly apparent to me, so it felt good to have confirmation that I wasn't the only one who noticed. Reflected on what it must have meant about her internal progression and adaptations.
So thank you for this piece, and for all of your programming. Radiolab is always stimulating and entertaining, leaving this listener enriched by being able to have shared this experience with producers, presenters and other listeners.

Feb. 08 2014 05:49 PM

The marshmallow/kids segment: I'd be curious to know if the kids who couldn't delay gratification had authority issues? If those kids were predisposed to doubt the promise by the authority figure of future, greater reward, are they more likely to eat the marshmallow now while it's a certainty? Rather than risk losing the marshmallow altogether by potentially trusting an unreliable authority figure?

I'm wondering if this is an experiment about trust rather than delayed gratification...

Feb. 07 2014 01:04 AM

Re the marshmallow/Oreo "willpower" test, and how well those kids did later: I wonder whether Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, author of "Gut and Psychology Syndrome", would argue that the children less able to resist the temptations were children whose gut flora imbalance literally made them crave -- and eat -- mostly sweet and starchy foods? And that the same imbalance of intestinal microbes ("gut dysbiosis"), which she believes is greatly responsible for autism, ADD and ADHD, a lot of depression, bi-polarism, schizophrenia, and other psychiatric/eurological disorders, would naturally make it harder for these children to grow into focused, goal-oriented, successful adults. As "Seabiscute" indicated, lead and/or other toxins could also play a role.

Everything about the brain, as with the rest of the body, is biological. There is no "willpower" that is separate from the biochemistry of the body. Through better gut health, both autistic children and schizophrenic adults can become far more "normal", and the rest of us can reduce the "brain fog" that we worry may be the start of senility. It's fascinating work that deserves, and, I hope, will get, much more attention. In a modest way, perhaps it already is. Some of this is touched on in the mass-market bestseller "Wheat Belly" by Dr. William Davis.

Jan. 30 2013 03:54 PM
LauraGessert from TEXAS

What about kids like me who were very intuitive about what they ate and NEVER would TOUCH a marshmallow? As a kid if I saw the dog would not eat one I knew something was wrong.

As a teacher I have seen cases where a child is being disruptive because they are not challenged in school period.
Let us not further pigeonhole kids for the sake of simplistic scientific method. I love your show but I like the shows where you are open to the idea of mystery and just posing ideas personally. I loved Paul Auster's part he is one of my favorite authors. And like like him I too have had a lot of these rhythms in life. It is good to know they are just things that happen.

The study on marshmallows forgot to include the kids who wait too long when everyone else is done they have been taught by their parents or inner bad self esteem that others should go first. Parents teach them to be kind and let others have all the goodies or parents teach them they are nto good enough to have a cookie because they are inherently bad.

Defining success by material alone is not a good marker. I had a boss who was born rich and a sociopath. Most things cannot be tested.

Jan. 28 2013 08:37 AM

The first time I heard the segment about self-control in young children, I had not heard about the research that ascribed criminal and anti-social behavior in young people to lead exposure. But now I have, and I am wondering: is anyone looking into the possibility that lead is the difference between the kids who could defer their gratification, and who went on to be more successful in life by most measures, and those who could not, and didn't?

Jan. 27 2013 08:56 PM
Rebecca in Centennial from Colorado

My life is full of "rhyming events." Here's one. I grew up in Illinois. When I was a teenager, my family was planning a trip to London. Then one day my dad came home and announced that we weren't going on a trip; he was going to buy a large boat instead, which we ended up keeping in a marina on the Illinois River. Years later, my husband and I planned a trip to Ireland with a layover in London. We flew from Colorado to Detroit, where I heard my name while we were in line to board our plane to London. It was my dad, who'd just flown to Detroit on a last-minute business trip. He realized I was probably there and went to find me (this was before 911, when you could go practically anywhere in an airport.) He told me he was glad I was finally getting to see London. Seeing him was strange enough, but then I got into a conversation with the passenger across the aisle on the plane. He was a nice British guy who had been visiting his wife's family with their kids. His wife was from Illinois, and they had visited a marina where her friends kept a boat. He showed me photos, and there it was -- my dad's boat about two slips down.

Jan. 27 2013 12:03 AM
jean graubert from n,h,

what is the source of paul auster's quote from charles olson:sociology is a wizard's.....

Jan. 25 2013 01:17 PM
alan from NYC

I'll preface my complaint that I'll always love you guys. I've loved Robert since his mice sang "give me some money". BUT, the today's opening teaser struck me as weak. Lots and lots of people hid out in Paris, in a low-rent district. Lots of them had kids. Many of those kids visited Paris and stayed in a low-rent place. That one of them happened to stay a the place his father stayed at may be a low-probability event, but they happen, just as people occasionally win at the casino.

Life itself seems pretty low probability, but given the size of reality, we can't be completely amazed. Had the son not stayed in the father's place, the story wouldn't have been reported at all. There are probably a thousand dreams nightly in the US alone where someone pictures the loss of a loved one. Sooner or later it WILL happen. That doesn't make it a premonition. Now add the "improbable but true" event to the Paris story and a thousand others, and one of them is just about guaranteed to happen. It just seems weird, so it gets reported, but it's in the numbers.

So I think the whole premise is weak, and not up to your usual mark. It is, of course, a minor glitch in a great show.

Jan. 25 2013 08:42 AM
Jonathan Migas

on (I believe) October 19th, 2010, a close friend of mine (who I have known since I was seven years old) told me he would attempt to perform a 'trick' he had recently been taught, one that involved him going into a trance, and subsequently-- telling my future.
I looked at him incredulously, thought he was,full of it-but at the same time I was fairly intrigued, because I'd known him all my life, and the tone in which he was telling me this seemed to indicate that he was very deadly serious about it,so he began to tell me things, driving down the highway, his eyes squinting, as he engaged himself in this 'trance'...and began telling me my FUTURE life events. If I interrupted him during his predictions, he would request that I stay quiet, that it was difficult, what he was attempting to do, and that I would do better to just shut up and listen to what he had to say.
He laughed and smiled at a lot of what he said, he told me various possible outcomes to all kinds of future trials I would--(and indeed, HAVE) encountered-- I listened curiously, as I heard what he said, never really putting too much stock into until he started to speak of details about my life and thinking that--beyond a shadow of a doubt--were details so private and personal, I knew, there was not any POSSIBLE way anyone but me could know. then he really had my attention.
Unfortunately, for me, I forgot all he had told me within a matter of days...but sure enough, come the summer of 2012, things began to occur that seemed, familiar, in some strange many specifics happened, EXACTLY the way he said they would, I was finally FORCED to remember my friends story, and I have become entirely consumed with it.
"He said this would happen!" "I've heard of this before!" were the sorts of things I'd exclaim to all my friends and family, for the past 6 months now.
He even mentioned my spilling the beans about his ability on the radiolab blog about fate and fortune. He told me it would be a wild mistake to do so, as he told me much of what I've done recently would be a wild mistake.
But the reason I feel so compelled to share this story is that, my friend was a SCIENTIST, a very well educated man, now working very high up in the scientific fields...and I have now experienced so much that happened EXACTLY as he said it would happen, and have failed exactly in the manner in which he said I would fail in,
and to sum it all up, I simply have no choice to believe that, whatever happens has already happened. How else could someone else know so precisely what happened in my life,BEFORE it happened.
He equated his 'trick' to the abilities of Edgar Cayce.he would not give me the precise details of his 'training' but having grown up with him I know for a fact it had something to do with consuming cod liver oil in high dosages, 'cod liver oil conditioning' he called it
I've left a massive deal of information about all this OUT of this post.not only is fate real, its most definitely predetermined.

Jan. 24 2013 07:13 PM
Jake from Chicago

The opposite of love is indifference" - Elie Wiesel.

I think this is an appropriate quote considering that Robert has a two disagreements in this episode that revolve around others' stances towards love and indifference respectively. Is it Gretzy's hockey love? Is it the universe's indifference to Wile E. Coyote? Either way Krulwich believes in the opposite, and I find that wonderful.

Jan. 24 2013 06:15 PM
Jeff from California

My family had something similar, when I was born we about an hour north of Sacramento and had a family that lived next to us. We lived in this town for a year, then moved to Chicago for the next 7 years. In 1989, we returned to a different town closer to San Francisco. We move into our house, and there next to us, our neighbors, same exact family that was our neighbors 7 years ago in the other city. It must be said that we had lost complete contact with this other family over the previous 7 years.

Jun. 01 2012 04:09 PM

When the question of “fate” comes up, I ask questions like these:

(1) Would Bill Gates have been so successful if he'd been born to poor farmers in rural Kansas?

(2) Would Van Gogh have been so famous if a gene change or two had made him a happy-go-lucky guy?

(3) Would Sir Isaac Newton have revolutionized humanity's grasp of reality if his father hadn't died three months after his birth?

You can probably think of other examples.

Some people see “fate;” some people see happenstance. Yes, there's “talent” (with genetic and nurture factors), but there's also innate robust health, opportunity, and pure dumb luck.

You can probably think of other factors.

Mar. 01 2012 05:01 AM
Colleen from BC

Some people are born with a 64 pack of crayons, others are born with an 8's what you do with the colours.

Dec. 09 2011 07:14 PM
Beth from Sacramento, CA

As someone who lives with ADD, I can personally attest that everyone can learn self control, which I certainly did not have by the age of 4. I now have 4 children, am a college graduate, and maintain a full-time job.

Oct. 21 2011 12:53 PM
Li from New York

Speaking of rhyming events. My boyfriend's grandfather became friends with a man he worked with in Iran but he never introduced this friend to his family. We'll call him Bob. Both men had sons, one who is my boyfriend's father. Those two met randomly in life and also never introduced each other to their families. The sons also had sons, one who is my boyfriend. He met a friend in college in northern California who is the Bob's grandson.

3 generations of men who met without the help of the previous generation in completely different parts of the world.

Oct. 07 2011 10:58 AM

why else would people say do what you love and you'll be successful

Jun. 14 2011 10:50 AM
MatsM from Oslo

This one is not on itunes. Why?

Mar. 29 2011 05:55 AM
Dan from North Carolina

I am annoyed with the idea of genius being love. I think the innate ability of a genius allows him/her to love something, because he/she is so good at it. Who wouldn't love something that is easy for them? The scientist who presented the idea sounds like a guy who had to work hard and was angry that other people didn't. As for gifted programs, I think it's a travesty that study time is not factored into gpa. Studying extra hard to me is akin cheating, because you can't get higher than perfect on a test. If person A makes a 4.0 for a school year and studies for 100 hours and person B also makes a 4.0 , but studies for 200 hours; that should be recorded. I think future employers would want to know that Person A, clearly, would be more effective on new tasks. In the real world time is money. I have seen extra hard studiers slow down gifted classes by asking stupid questions during actual class times. If you don't think there were stupid questions in school, you most likely were one of the students asking them.

Feb. 28 2011 09:44 AM
Alex J from Oregon

It's clear that life is some variable confluence of "fate" and will (which itself is influenced by other forces). As with nature vs. nurture, it's both. And will power is not the ONLY factor that affects outcomes. Certainly an interesting peek into an age-old topic.

Feb. 19 2011 03:31 PM
Christina from Virginia

Love the show! My only question is, how can you be sure that the four-year-olds decision to eat the marshmallow was based on nature alone? Just as the guy says in the piece, the children can be taught to resist the temptation, so maybe the kids who can just came into the study with skills learned from their parents. And it seems likely to me that the same parents that would tell a four-year-old "no dessert until after dinner," would also be telling their teenager, "no going out until you finish studying for the SAT."

Jan. 22 2011 08:25 AM

On the subject of being born during the first month/s of the year, weird coincidence OR "fate", I work for 6 oncologist, 5 out of 6 have birthdates on Jan & Feb, what you think?

Dec. 10 2010 02:07 PM

The music used at 41:48 when Mr. Lancashire says he turned to Agatha Christie is fantastic, nice choice for the topic. I'm curious, what's the title and who created it?

Nov. 30 2010 02:57 PM
Chris from mi

I just want to say I love the show. Thanks for doing what you guys do.

Nov. 30 2010 12:09 PM
birder from brooklyn

this show was amazing as always. what i don't understand is why it seems all the comments are just complaints. can't it just be enough that all the folks make these shows for us to listen to. get over it. enjoy.

Nov. 27 2010 07:07 PM

Is anyone at Radiolab reading these? Like several other posters, I too didn't get this episode on podcast; I have 'Oops,' then2 shorts, 'Words,' then a rebroadcast of 'Time.' What's up, and with all due respect, why havena't you answered this repeatedly-asked question yet??

Nov. 26 2010 07:44 PM
Laura Cramer

Was this episode released as a podcast in individual segments? The content sounds familiar but I don't remember there being an hourlong show on these topics.

Nov. 08 2010 01:47 PM

Thanks for not posting my legitimate comment. You sure didn't have a problem taking my contribution. Btw, the new format on the website is looks great, but there's no substitute for more shows.

Nov. 04 2010 07:24 AM
Bridgett from Oregon

I second that question-why do the most recent two episodes not appear in iTunes?

Nov. 01 2010 08:59 PM

Why is this episode and the last one not yet in iTunes? Are the RSS feeds delayed?

Oct. 30 2010 10:23 PM
Mary from Illinois

Given that I'm addicted to RadioLab, I am dissappointed that I've already heard every segment of the fate and fortune episode from the shorts. I really like having the shorts in between, but only if they don't end up being word for word portions of the full episodes.

Oct. 26 2010 08:59 AM
scondon from Oakland

I enjoyed the episode, but I feel a bit misled by the description. You don't really address fate, at least I understand it. Your episode addresses the following questions: Here are some funny coincidences; aren't they weird? Is our ability to focus and delay gratification inborn and set for life? Is success in a given field influenced more by our love of the subject or something inborn called 'talent'? Can Alzheimer's Disease be detected earlier by analyzing our daily use of vocabulary?

I was hoping to hear people discuss: Does free will exist? Given the laws of the universe and the state of every particle in the universe, could every subsequent state of the universe be predicted? In other words, given the laws of physics, is there any wiggle room for free will or is everything (every single collision of atoms, every thought, every action) predetermined? What are some of the different understandings of the word 'fate'? Daniel Dennett would be a good starting point for a segment on this subject - see his Freedom Evolves.

Oct. 25 2010 08:47 PM

Oops, that'll teach me to post before listening to the end of the show -- Auster indeed comes through in the end.

Oct. 22 2010 07:33 PM
HunterJE from Washington state

Tut tut on the Auster bit -- didn't we already go over this with the Stochasticity episode? It's not magic, it's not fate, it's just selective thinking.

Oct. 22 2010 06:43 PM

the f in middle c is broken on my piano too!

Oct. 21 2010 10:17 PM

dude I cannot *believe* you didn't ask the marshmallow guy whether he thought (or ask yourselves) whether it could be the case that differentials in cognitive maturity demonstrated by the marshmallow test gave the hold-outs a larger advantage as they entered kindergarten alongside the kids who couldn't yet hold out.
Especially in light the of the recent study by Saez et al on how important kindergarten is to kids:

this question is the one that recognizes the fact that we live in a world of structural forces on our lives. missing that is missing the big picture. thinking it could just be genetic differences, without realizing all the kids, those less-ready and more-ready, are all shoved into school at the same age, will favor those kids who are more ready. maybe every school should have an Oreo test before the kids come into pre-K/Kindergarten or something....? lol.

This is also semi- the point Gladwell makes about talent and gifted programs in the next piece..

Oct. 21 2010 08:47 PM

This episode's title got me thinking you guys should delve into the post-structuralist 'structure vs. agency' debate.... are we created by the structures that govern our world, or do we create those structures?

take this passage as a jumping off point:
"“I AM WHAT I AM,” then, is not simply a lie, a simple advertising campaign, but a military campaign, a war cry directed against everything that exists between beings, against everything that circulates indistinctly, everything that invisibly links them, everything that prevents complete desolation, against everything that makes us exist," from:

Oct. 21 2010 08:17 PM

I'm curious, in the marshmallow/Oreo cookie test:
Did they look at what happened to the kids that tried to cheat and trick the researcher? (Like the guy that liked the cream off and returned the cookie.)
How did they do in life?

Oct. 21 2010 01:31 PM
Eric from Fargo

you guys should really start clarifying if the episode just consists of shorts that were already aired. but other than that, no complaints and keep up the awesome work everyone

Oct. 17 2010 09:59 PM

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