The tale of the marshmallows is well known to educators and policy wonks. During the 60s and 70s, some of the best psychologists of the time conducted a series of research experiments that involved 4 year olds sitting alone in a closed room with nothing more than two marshmallows and a bell on a table. A researcher entered the room and told the kid that he was going to leave her alone for a while. The child could eat both treats when the researcher returned or, if she felt the irresistible urge to eat before then, she had to ring the bell and then could eat one, but not both, of the treats.
The results of these studies found that the kids who resisted the urge to immediately eat the marshmallow had higher SAT scores and better outcomes later in life. The science was clear: statistically significant correlations between the delay of gratification and positive outcomes. Keep your eyes on the prize, resist impulse and you will reap the rewards of a better life.
Studies like the marshmallow study have spawned interest in trying to teach kids self-discipline and other socio-emotional skills. New research along these lines is interesting and promising, and has been the subject of this blog. But I have to admit, as Michael Bourne points out, there are some reasons to be skeptical.
The most compelling of these is the simple reality that life is complex. Impulse control is one of a quadzillion factors that shape our lives. Just as it can give a kid the extra edge that she needs to get ahead, it may only do so much for another kid from a difficult family situation, living in poverty, and suffering from any combination of physical and mental maladies. Perhaps this kid would have eaten the marshmallow in a second flat, not because he lacked self-discipline, but because he was hungry, or because he had no reason to believe that some researcher that he had never met before was actually going to come back and make good on the promise of a double treat.
In suggesting that more socio-emotional skills, better taught, particularly to kids facing an uphill battle from the start, will be the game changer, we are giving in to the instant gratification of the marshmallow. It gives us an easy-out. If we successfully teach grit or character or self-discipline, then we can level the playing field of life for all kids. We could close gaps in education and have a society full of productive adults. The vicious cycle of poverty and the bigotry of low expectations would be broken. Our only challenge is to design and implement the right curriculum.
But, as Bourne reminds us, there is no silver bullet. We don’t know with any certainty whether character traits can be taught like history or math. And we haven’t yet gotten those down to a science.
The science of the marshmallow trials comes from its correlations, not causations. It has led us down a promising path with many twists, turns and ins and outs. There are no easy outs.
Food for thought.