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May 11, 2009 6:37 AM   Subscribe

Jonah Lehrer in The New Yorker profiles Walter Mischel, whose recent research indicates a child's ability to delay gratification can predict the child's academic success. Mischel was previously mentioned in a thread on behavorial economics. He is best known for the marshmallow experiment in the 1960s. (via)
posted by shadytrees (25 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
Fascinating. And now I'm all but guaranteed to go buy a bag of marshmallows today.
posted by hermitosis at 7:09 AM on May 11, 2009


Would you like one favorite now, or two favorites later?
posted by kuujjuarapik at 7:16 AM on May 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


This is a terrific post - and the main profile of Mischel has thoughtful caveats galore about his work. It carefully states:

There is something deeply contradictory about Walter Mischel—a psychologist who spent decades critiquing the validity of personality tests—inventing the marshmallow task, a simple test with impressive predictive power.

If I apply the most reductive message of the test - an early ability to delay gratification indicates measured success later in life - to my family & friends - it fails horribly. Sort of totally wrong in some cases, a bit right in others, and not very useful in cases in between.

It doesn't dislodge my starting prejudice; that psychology IS a great tool for unpacking the past, but not for revealing the future.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 7:18 AM on May 11, 2009


If I apply the most reductive message of the test ...

While that's what the media and the public tend to do, it's not really relevant to what the researchers have actually done or discovered.
posted by hermitosis at 7:23 AM on May 11, 2009


While that's what the media and the public tend to do

The public does it because the media tells them too. You can't expect the general public to go out and read academic papers.

On the other hand, many science journalists are terrible and love to publish complete nonsense that they don't even understand themselves.
posted by delmoi at 7:26 AM on May 11, 2009


This was a great article...and kinda scary for making me question, 'Am I a one marshmallow person, or two?'


Oh, and "Young kids are pure id," is a great quote.
posted by Sova at 7:28 AM on May 11, 2009


I was a delayer when I was a kid. Now I usually eat the marshmallow. I was more successful when I young, too, so maybe there is something to this.
posted by RussHy at 7:28 AM on May 11, 2009


While that's what the media and the public tend to do, it's not really relevant to what the researchers have actually done or discovered.

hermitosis,
How so?

Seriously, what do you take - more "relevantly" - from the test results that can't be covered by the catch-all non-scientific caveat "but of course, it does depend on the situation...."
posted by Jody Tresidder at 7:31 AM on May 11, 2009


Here's author Alfie Kohn's take on the marshmallow test: Why Self-Discipline is Overrated: The (Troubling) Theory and Practice of Control from Within
posted by Daily Alice at 7:39 AM on May 11, 2009 [6 favorites]


Lehrer was also involved in the recent Radiolab piece on Mischel.
posted by zeugitai_guy at 7:41 AM on May 11, 2009



See also: The economics term Time Preference and the chapter "The Imperatives of Class" (pg. 52) from Edward C. Banfield's The Unheavenly City Revisited, wherein he describes four U.S. social classes, the delineation between them made not by ethnicity, education, or even intelligence but future versus present orientation.
posted by ferdinand.bardamu at 7:49 AM on May 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


Delayed gratification is putting money in a savings account, buying on layaway, waiting until the popular girl in high school is a cheap crack whore. There may be something to this.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:53 AM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


What do you do if your child eats the marshmallows? How do you teach discipline?
posted by theora55 at 7:54 AM on May 11, 2009


No, buying on layaway is present gratification.
posted by ferdinand.bardamu at 7:54 AM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Daily Alice,
That essay seems spot on!

Kohn writes: A second paradox is that impressive self-discipline may contain the seeds of its own undoing

Kohn is also careful to note a bit later on - to paraphrase more or less - that, then again, it "may not contain the seeds of its own undoing...". It depends on too many variables.

Which is where I came in: psychology is a great tool - with hindsight!
posted by Jody Tresidder at 7:55 AM on May 11, 2009


A gene, personality trait, etc. may be extraordinarily useful during one phase of development while totally useless or harmful during another. Btw, evolution necessarily selects for those traits that benefit early life; hence the limited "uptime" for humans.
posted by jeffburdges at 8:02 AM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


One of the possibilities raised in the radiolab piece is that the ability to delay gratification was, in part, a measure of creativity. The children that were good at delaying gratification created different stratagies to distract themselves. The question, "What would happen if the poor performers were taught different statagies to delay gratification?" was raised but not otherwise addressed.
posted by pointilist at 8:53 AM on May 11, 2009


The children that were good at delaying gratification created different stratagies to distract themselves.

Which raises another question: What about children who came up with strategies to distract themselves but were still not able to resist in the end? How did they perform as a group compared to the group that was simply successful in not eating the marshmallow (regardless of the use of distraction strategies)?
posted by symbollocks at 9:50 AM on May 11, 2009


Or is this a "nurture" effect -- kids that have been taught better coping strategies by their environments (via direct instruction, play, observation, whatever) can both resist an oreo and perform better on the SATs?

This seems to be calling out for one of those "separated twins" studies.
posted by pointless_incessant_barking at 10:12 AM on May 11, 2009


People who couldn't delay gratification in that experiment tend to have higher BMIs, huh? HURF DURF SUGAR EATER.

I am impressed that the "one favorite now or two later" comment above still only has two favorites after about three hours. But would have been far cooler to see that MeFites could restrain themselves to just one.
posted by emelenjr at 10:13 AM on May 11, 2009


What do you do if your child eats the marshmallows? How do you teach discipline?

I remember reading a different version of this study that went something like this: The group was tricked and after being promised a reward of two candy bars for waiting, no candy bars were given to the kids who waited. The experiment was repeated again and no surprise, this time virtually all the kids ate the first candy bar instead of waiting for two.

The message was that the ability to delay gratification may have a strong environmental component.

I would suggest that the best way to help your child learn discipline is to be consistent and reliable. If your child has been told they will get something for following a request, then be sure to keep your word when they have done as you asked, and equally important, don't give in and give it to them anyway when they haven't followed through.
posted by marsha56 at 10:47 AM on May 11, 2009 [3 favorites]


ferdinand.bardamu: No, buying on layaway is present gratification.

"Layaway" refers to the practice of holding an item for a customer while he incrementally pays for it. It is not synonymous with a credit purchase, which is an example of present gratification.
posted by mr vino at 2:37 PM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


The group was tricked and after being promised a reward of two candy bars for waiting, no candy bars were given to the kids who waited.

Yeah, one lesson life teaches us is that sometimes - maybe most of the time - it might actually be more rational to eat the candy bar now.

A couple of examples:

- I'm making 0.6% a year on my savings account: and the price of gas has gone up 8% this week.

- My father-in-law raised a houseful of kids on a blue-collar wage, promising his wife that they'd travel after he retired. He was dead within a year of retirement.

That helped teach me not to defer every reward.
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 4:08 PM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Another factor to take into account - the very nature of decision making itself, aka Executive Function.

Studies intimate that we have a limited amount of exec function, waste it on the cookie, and you may find yourself buying a pyramid scheme!
posted by smoke at 9:50 PM on May 11, 2009


Here's a correlation: the people that make podcasts tend to be douches that can't shut up and let people they are interviewing talk. I wanted to punch that wnyc guy in the face. How about you let the brilliant psych prof tell his story? Ugh.

(Ira glass being the exception here).
posted by brocklanders at 7:24 AM on May 12, 2009


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