The Marshmallow Test
Around 1970 Walter Mischel, then at Stanford and now at Columbia, launched one of the most famous and delightful experiments in modern psychology. He sat a series of four-year-olds in a room and put a marshmallow on the table. He told them they could eat the marshmallow right away, but that he was going to go away and if they waited until he returned he would give them two marshmallows. In the videos of the experiment you can see Mischel leave the room, and then the children squirming, kicking, hiding their eyes, and banging their heads on the table, trying not to eat the marshmallow on the table in front of them.
One day, Mischel used an Oreo instead of a marshmallow. A kid picked up the cookie, slyly ate the creamy filling and carefully put it back in its place. (That kid is probably now a U.S. senator.) But the significant thing is this: the kids who could wait several minutes subsequently did much better in school and had fewer behavioral problems than the kids who could wait only a few minutes. They had better social skills in middle school. The kids who could wait a full fifteen minutes had, thirteen years later, SAT scores that were 210 points higher than the kids who could wait only thirty seconds. (The marshmallow test turned out to be a better predictor of SAT scores than the IQ tests given to four-year-olds.)
Twenty years later, they had much higher college-completion rates, and thirty years later, they had much higher incomes. The kids who could not wait at all had much higher incarceration rates. They were much more likely to suffer from drug- and alcohol-addiction problems. The test presented kids with a conflict between short-term impulse and long-term reward. The marshmallow test measured whether kids had learned strategies to control their impulses. The ones who learned to do that did well in school and life. Those that hadn’t found school endlessly frustrating. The kids who possessed these impulse-control abilities had usually grown up in organized homes. In their upbringing, actions had led to predictable consequences. They possessed a certain level of self-confidence, the assumption that they could succeed at what they set out to do. Kids who could not resist the marshmallows often came from disorganized homes. They were less likely to see the link between actions and consequences and less likely to have learned strategies to help them master immediate temptations. But the crucial finding concerned the nature of the strategies that worked. The kids who did poorly directed their attention right at the marshmallow. They thought if they looked right at it they could somehow master their temptation to eat it. The ones who could wait distracted themselves from the marshmallow. They pretended it wasn’t real, it wasn’t there, or it wasn’t really a marshmallow. They had techniques to adjust their attention.
Brooks, David. The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (p. 124). Random House Publishing Group.
Orchids, Dandelions, and Monsters
Let’s talk about orchids, dandelions, and hopeful monsters. (I know, I know, you talk about these things all the time and this is nothing new to you. Please indulge me.) There’s an old Swedish expression that says most kids are dandelions but a few are orchids. Dandelions are resilient. They’re not the most beautiful flowers, but even without good care they thrive. Nobody goes around deliberately planting dandelions. You don’t need to. They do just fine under almost any conditions. Orchids are different. If you don’t care for them properly they wilt and die. But if given proper care, they bloom into the most gorgeous flowers imaginable.
Now we’re not just talking about flowers, and we’re not just talking about kids. We’re actually learning a lesson about cutting-edge genetics.
The same genes that lead to bad stuff can actually lead to great stuff in a different situation. The same knife that can be used to viciously stab someone can also prepare food for your family. Whether the knife is good or bad depends on context.
Most people are dandelions; they’ll come out okay under almost any circumstances. Others are orchids; they’re not just more sensitive to negative outcomes but more sensitive to everything. They
won’t flourish in the dirt by the side of a road like a dandelion would. But when they’re well tended in a nice greenhouse, their beauty will put the dandelions to shame. As writer David Dobbs said in a piece for The Atlantic, “the very genes that give us the most trouble as a species, causing behaviors that are self-destructive and antisocial, also underlie humankind’s phenomenal adaptability and evolutionary success. With a bad environment and poor parenting, orchid children can end up depressed, drug-addicted, or in jail—but with the right environment and good parenting, they can grow up to be society’s most creative, successful, and happy people.”
Barker, Eric. Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong (p. 17). HarperCollins.
Smart vs. a Hard Worker
Researcher Carol Dweck has found that when you praise a student for working hard, it reinforces his identity as an industrious soul. A student in this frame of mind is willing to take on challenging tasks, and to view mistakes as part of the working process. When you praise a student for being smart, on the other hand, it conveys the impression that achievement is an inborn trait. Students in that frame of mind want to continue to appear smart. They’re less likely to try challenging things because they don’t want to make mistakes and appear stupid.
Brooks, David. The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (p. 86). Random House Publishing Group
What Children Need to Succeed
If there is one thing developmental psychologists have learned over the years, it is that parents don’t have to be brilliant psychologists to succeed. They don’t have to be supremely gifted teachers. Most of the stuff parents do with flashcards and special drills and tutorials to hone their kids into perfect achievement machines don’t have any effect at all. Instead, parents just have to be good enough. They have to provide their kids with stable and predictable rhythms. They need to be able to fall in tune with their kids’ needs, combining warmth and discipline. They need to establish the secure emotional bonds that kids can fall back upon in the face of stress. They need to be there to provide living examples of how to cope with the problems of the world so that their children can develop unconscious models in their heads.
Brooks, David. The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (pp. 60-61). Random House Publishing Group.