June 10, 2009
Of Kids and Marshmallows
I found this article from the New Yorker to be most interesting. It is a very long article, but here are some pertinent excerpts from which you'll get the gist of this longitudinal study starting with marshmallows and little kids, and following them into their adulthood...
The secret of self-control.
Children who are able to pass the marshmallow test enjoy greater success as adults.
Carolyn Weisz, a four-year-old with long brown hair, was [...] was asked to sit down in the chair and pick a treat from a tray of marshmallows, cookies, and pretzel sticks. Carolyn chose the marshmallow. [...]
A researcher then made Carolyn an offer: 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. Then he left the room.
[...] Footage of these experiments, which were conducted over several years, is poignant, as the kids struggle to delay gratification for just a little bit longer. Some cover their eyes with their hands or turn around so that they can’t see the tray. Others start kicking the desk, or tug on their pigtails, or stroke the marshmallow as if it were a tiny stuffed animal. One child, a boy with neatly parted hair, looks carefully around the room to make sure that nobody can see him. Then he picks up an Oreo, delicately twists it apart, and licks off the white cream filling before returning the cookie to the tray, a satisfied look on his face.
[...] Most of the children [...] struggled to resist the treat and held out for an average of less than three minutes. “A few kids ate the marshmallow right away,” Walter Mischel, the Stanford professor of psychology in charge of the experiment, remembers. “They didn’t even bother ringing the bell. Other kids would stare directly at the marshmallow and then ring the bell thirty seconds later.” About thirty per cent of the children, however, were like Carolyn. They successfully delayed gratification until the researcher returned, some fifteen minutes later. These kids wrestled with temptation but found a way to resist.
[...] 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.
[...] If Mischel and his team succeed, they will have outlined the neural circuitry of self-control. For decades, psychologists have focussed 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.”
[...] Mischel [...] knows that it’s not enough just to teach kids mental tricks — the real challenge is turning those tricks into habits, and that requires years of diligent practice. “This is where your parents are important,” Mischel says. “Have they established rituals that force you to delay on a daily basis? Do they encourage you to wait? And do they make waiting worthwhile?” According to Mischel, even the most mundane routines of childhood — such as not snacking before dinner, or saving up your allowance, or holding out until Christmas morning — are really sly exercises in cognitive training: we’re teaching ourselves how to think so that we can outsmart our desires. But Mischel isn’t satisfied with such an informal approach. “We should give marshmallows to every kindergartner,” he says. “We should say, ‘You see this marshmallow? You don’t have to eat it. You can wait. Here’s how.’ ”
I also saw a link to self-control with sex. Teenagers and young adults need to hear more people say the same thing about that - "You don't have to do that now - you can wait. Really. It'll be more than twice as good later if you do, without all the emotional, medical, social and spiritual fallout of doing it now. Greater rewards of health, emotional safety, trust, unique intimacy and the practice of faithfulness and patience for your future spouse."
June 10, 2009 | Permalink
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