Marshmallows, Patience, and Grit

This post is a response to an experiment conducted first in the 60s, which has in some ways continued to the present day.

The test is pretty simple—its point is to put kids into two categories: impulsive, and patient.  The test offered isolated children one marshmallow instantly, or two fifteen minutes later.  Imagine being five(ish) years old, and alone.  Now image that you have a feverish attachment to marshmallows.  Assume the decreasing marginal benefit of a second marshmallow is negligible.  Are you able to entertain yourself enough for a whole fifteen minutes to gain the second treat?  Or do you wimp out and eat the plump fluffy sugar muffin sitting in front of you.

The interesting part of the experiment is that decades later, the researchers caught up with the same tested kids.  A few surveys later, they found out that the impulsive kids scored 210 points lower on the SAT, and were involved in drugs and other dangerous behavior to a much higher degree.

There are multiple possible explanations.  The one the experimenters went with is this:  it is all about memory function.

The students who distracted themselves for the 15 minutes were able to forget about the marshmallow.  This was verified by a separate test (a follow up) that tested the student’s ability to forget facts.  The one’s who could wait were able to distract themselves from fleeting pleasure by removing it from their mind.  As I said, its all about memory.  The authors used a more technical term: dealing with “hot emotional states.”

This was further verified by Angela Lee Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania whose research projects looked at the relationship between self-control and grade-point average. Eighth graders were given a choice between a dollar right away or two dollars the following week.  She found that the ability to delay gratification was a far better predictor of academic performance than I.Q.

This brings me to a new concept: Grit.  Grit is the ability to persevere in spite of easier, more temporally pleasant alternatives.  People wrongly assume that geniuses just happen to fall into a new theory.  The best example of this is with Newton.  The story (made up by Voltaire) is that he saw an apple fall and—poof… Gravity.  This is a completely fallacious account of his discovery.  The actual process was both rigorous and time consuming.  It took years of counting the swings of a pendulum (1752 an hour) and other countless, tedious experiments, before a theory came through.  I have always recognized the importance of working hard—but these experiments have emphasized the value of perseverance in a new way for me.

As the aforementioned study concludes: “intelligence is really important, but it’s still not as important as self-control.”

This brings up the question of whether or not we can make ourselves more or less impulsive.  It begs the question of whether we can change the way we control our “emotional hot states”.  I think that our parents significantly determine our work ethic.  Teachers too—but I am not sure to what extent.  An interesting example of this is the KIPP schools: Knowledge Is Power Program. KIPP is a network of free open-enrollment college-preparatory public schools in under-resourced communities throughout the United States.  KIPP schools have a very long workday—students are in class from 7:25 A.M. to 5 P.M. These schools have dramatically improved inner-city students’ test scores. (More than eighty per cent of eighth graders at the KIPP academy in the South Bronx scored at or above grade level in reading and math, which was nearly twice the New York City average.) Dave Levin (founder of KIPP) stated that “The core feature of the KIPP approach is that character matters for success.  Educators like to talk about character skills when kids are in kindergarten—we send young kids home with a report card about ‘working well with others’ or ‘not talking out of turn.’ But then, just when these skills start to matter, we stop trying to improve them. We just throw up our hands and complain.”

This school worked to alter students mental orientation to make them able and willing to wait for a second marshmallow.  In fact—they have T-shirts that display “Don’t eat the Marshmallow!”  as a playful joke, but also an important lesson.

By teaching students how to put off TV watching to instead focus on an alternative, long term goal, we can help our students thrive in endless settings.

If only it was easier to stop playing Dota—and instead write more blog posts.

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2 Responses to Marshmallows, Patience, and Grit

  1. chesleya says:

    Basic rules of blogging say you have to give credit to Lehrer for the tip to the Duckworth article, interesting as your post may be.

  2. Ross says:

    I read this a while ago and only just got around to commenting on it.

    I don’t think it should surprise anyone that self-control is important: at least, if your goal is to maximize productivity. People who are goal-oriented and hard-working will tend to be more productive than people who are intellectually scattered and lazy. The question, then, is whether the goal of education should be to maximize productivity. If you want to ensure that twenty years from now we’ll still be able to punch China in the nuts economically, then yeah, we should do everything we can to turn our children into tiny capitalist automatons.

    Do I think that’s good? Well, I just used the phrase “tiny capitalist automatons,” so probably not. Productivity is great for raising the GDP, but it doesn’t necessarily produce happy or intellectually curious people, and in a lot of cases probably works against that end.

    I know you didn’t argue that self-control is always good, and I don’t mean to suggest that self-control is always bad (certainly anything that reduces the rate of drug addiction is a good thing). I do think it’s possible to get caught up in self-control to the exclusion of other educational goals, though (in fact, I think this describes our current educational system fairly well; the REASON people with high self-control score so well on tests is that those tests are all premised on the banking method, and the banking method essentially measures whether you have the self-control to memorize dozens of disparate facts and concepts and spit them back out again at a later date).

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