On my way into work this morning I read a great piece in the latest New Yorker titled “Don’t! The Secret of Self Control.“ Talk about “food for thought!” Fascinating stuff, especially in the context of giftedness. For parents and educators, lots to chew on (lame pun, I know.).
The article revisits the famous “marshmallow” experiment done at Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School in the late 1960s to identify the mental processes involved in delaying gratification. A child would be placed in a small room with a plate of treats. A researcher told the child she could “either eat one marshmallow right away or, if she was willing to wait while he stepped out for a few minutes, she could have two marshmallows when he returned. He said that if she rang a bell on the desk while he was away he would come running back, and she could eat one marshmallow but would forfeit the second.” Some kids could wait out the 15 minutes. Others could barely wait until the researcher was out the door.
The marshmallow task, it turns out, is a “powerfully predictive test.”
Mischel began to notice a link between the children’s academic performance as teen-agers and their ability to wait for the second marshmallow. He asked his daughters to assess their friends academically on a scale of zero to five. Comparing these ratings with the original data set, he saw a correlation. “That’s when I realized I had to do this seriously,” he says. Starting in 1981, Mischel sent out a questionnaire to all the reachable parents, teachers, and academic advisers of the six hundred and fifty-three subjects who had participated in the marshmallow task, who were by then in high school. He asked about every trait he could think of, from their capacity to plan and think ahead to their ability to “cope well with problems” and get along with their peers. He also requested their S.A.T. scores.
Once Mischel began analyzing the results, he noticed that low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.
[Prediction: Parents around the country are at this very moment conducting their own "marshmallow tests." "Emily, we're going to play a little game...." C'mon, you know it's true!]
Researchers are now taking this further and exploring the idea that there is a connection between the ability to delay gratification as a child and success in later life.
For decades, psychologists have focused on raw intelligence as the most important variable when it comes to predicting success in life. Mischel argues that intelligence is largely at the mercy of self-control: even the smartest kids still need to do their homework. “What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t will power or self-control,” Mischel says. “It’s much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it.”
The next step is to study the actual brain structure and function using MRI scans. A team is also studying school children in several cities to see if self-control can be taught, with all sorts of potentially interesting implications for education.
Angela Lee Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, is leading the program. She first grew interested in the subject after working as a high-school math teacher. “For the most part, it was an incredibly frustrating experience,” she says. “I gradually became convinced that trying to teach a teen-ager algebra when they don’t have self-control is a pretty futile exercise.” And so, at the age of thirty-two, Duckworth decided to become a psychologist. One of her main research projects looked at the relationship between self-control and grade-point average. She found that the ability to delay gratification—eighth graders were given a choice between a dollar right away or two dollars the following week—was a far better predictor of academic performance than I.Q. She said that her study shows that “intelligence is really important, but it’s still not as important as self-control.”
Yes, reading this story, one can’t help but immediately think of one’s own children–and do a mental assessment of how they would do if faced with the marshmallow test or similar temptations. Both of my girls are pretty good at delaying gratification, but in the case of, say, motivation to do homework and to apply oneself intellectually, there is a difference. It’s not that M. isn’t motivated or able to delay gratification. It’s that C. is just compelled to do so to that nth degree more than is typical. That focus, that drive.
I come back again to the lame concept of “wiring.” Gifted kids–and particularly exceptionally/profoundly gifted kids–are just wired differently. IQ? Yes. But to connect it to Gladwell…it might not just be that they are innately more “talented” (the whole “poked by God” thing from that video I posted recently), but that from somewhere they have the internal drive, the compulsion, the whatever, to focus and to want to practice whatever it is they have a talent for–for 10,000 hours. Which undercuts the “it’s just lots of practice” folks who want to use Gladwell to dispute the idea of giftedness and prodigy and promulgate the idea that it’s only about hard work, and therefore attainable by all. Yes, it’s the repetition, experimentation and honing–but it’s the desire and compulsion to do the work (which to these individuals probably isn’t even “work”) coupled with innate talent, that distinguishes them.