Monday, August 8, 2011

Joe’s Take: Marshmallows

More than once I’ve heard David Brooks tell the marshmallow story. It’s about an experiment conducted in the late 1960s by psychology professor Walter Mischel in which pre-K children were given the chance either to consume a marshmallow (or cookie or candy) right away on the spot or to delay consumption in exchange for a guaranteed second marshmallow minutes later.

As anyone who knows four-year-olds might guess, some children ate the treat within seconds of the offer, some held out a bit longer, while others (some 30 percent) were able to control their desires for the experiment’s full 15-minute duration.

Though the power of the treats was readily apparent, it would be years before Mischel realized the full significance of the study. As the children were tracked over ensuing decades, it turns out that this extraordinarily simple measure of the capacity to delay gratification at age four was a powerful predictor of behavior later in life. In high school, the short delayers had an average SAT score 210 points lower than the long delayers. They also had more trouble paying attention and keeping friends. As adults they had higher body-mass indexes and incidents of drug abuse.

Now lest you think that future success is entirely determined by one’s skill in postponing gratification at age four, Mischel’s work and related research (engagingly described in this piece by Jonah Lehrer in The New Yorker) shows there is a learned component to self-control. Children can be taught how to do it, and practice can make it habitual, which brings us back to David Brooks.

In his latest book, The Social Animal, Brooks devotes considerable space to the role played by institutions and communities in forming character -- the habits of mind and behavior that shape a person’s core and set the stage for success. Self-control is among those habits, and Brooks correctly calls the trait “one of the essential ingredients of a fulfilling life.”

Now it’s no secret that many religious and independent schools put a premium on instilling self-discipline in students: paying attention in class, attending to the task at hand, doing homework without excuses, refraining from disruptive outbursts, behaving courteously during assemblies, not speaking out of turn, and on and on. Students get a whole lot of practice and encouragement when it comes to regulating their own behavior. “Character,” says Brooks, ”emerges gradually out of the mysterious interplay of a million little good influences.” Families, schools, religious institutions -- all with their particular social and moral capital -- contribute to the mix. “It is very hard to build self-control alone,” he writes.

Just as many parents provide children opportunities to learn to postpone gratification (no TV until your homework is done; no dessert unless you finish your dinner), religious and independent schools help children develop a work ethic and a sense of self-discipline in pursuit of a higher purpose that sets the groundwork for success and accomplishment later in life. They instill routines of order and respect that build, exercise, and strengthen enduring traits of character. Brooks calls the rules and habits of self-control promulgated by institutions “external scaffolds that penetrate deep inside us.” Indeed, the scaffolds of discipline that private schools provide help students resist instant marshmallows for a more substantial and lasting good.

(Posted by Joe McTighe, CAPE's Executive Director)

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