Un-Teaching Grit: The Marshmallow Test Revisited

 

James Pethokoulis recently asked how we can teach children the grit – the persistence, self-control, and conscientiousness – they need to climb the opportunity ladder. I don’t have a great answer to that question, but I do think there’s a likely answer to the question, “How do we un-teach grit?”

Many of us are probably acquainted with the Stanford marshmallow experiment. In this experiment, a young child is left alone in a room with a reward (in some cases, a marshmallow) with the promise that — if he refrains from eating the reward for a fixed length of time — he can have an even bigger reward once the time is up. It is considered a classic test of a child’s ability to delay gratification. When the researchers followed up on the children years later, they found that those able better to delay gratification had turned into more successful young adults: they had higher SAT scores and educational attainment, lower BMIs, were better able to cope with stress and frustration, and so on. Self-control wins! Grit wins! Conservatism wins! Go us!

Not so fast. The marshmallow test could also be considered a classic test of the child’s ability to trust the researcher.

The researchers who ran the original marshmallow experiment forgot to look at things from the child’s perspective: i.e., while the researchers knew that their promise of the greater reward would be fulfilled on time, the children had no good way of judging whether the researches could be trusted. As anyone who has ever been a kid should remember, sometimes even the most well-meaning adults break their promises to children. Children who have little reason to expect adults to keep their promises have little reason to expect that the researchers will actually return with the promised reward, and consequently less reason to wait

The marshmallow test has since been revisited with the child’s perspective in mind. In the new version, the children are divided up into two groups. The researchers interact reliably with the children in the first group, always keeping their promises. In the other group, the they are deliberately unreliable and consistently break their promises (though always with an apology). Only after being exposed to either reliable or unreliable interaction from the researchers, are the children given the original marshmallow test.

To the researcher’s astonishment — but not at all to mine — their behavior had a ginormous effect on how well the children do on the subsequent marshmallow test. Children whose prior experience with the researchers was unreliable wait only about three minutes, on average, before consuming their marshmallow. Children whose prior experience with the researchers was reliable, on the other hand, wait an average of about 12 minutes before consuming their marshmallow, four times as long!

Since, in prior studies, the average time a child would wait during the marshmallow test was about 6 minutes, this shows that reliably interacting with children doubles their apparent self-control, while interacting unreliably with children cuts their apparent self-control in half. Even “young children’s actions are… based on rational decisions about their environment”, the marshmallow-test revisitors conclude:

Being able to delay gratification – in this case to wait 15 difficult minutes to earn a second marshmallow – not only reflects a child’s capacity for self-control, it also reflects their belief about the practicality of waiting,” says Kidd. “Delaying gratification is only the rational choice if the child believes a second marshmallow is likely to be delivered after a reasonably short delay.

So, how do you un-teach children grit? Behave unreliably toward them and break your promises to them. Tell them they’ll get an allowance if they do their chores for the week, then — on the day when all their chores are actually done — inform them that their allowance money has already been spent on milk or gas. Tempt them with treats that never appear, and forget to follow through on your promised punishments.

This kind of unreliability is more likely to happen when you’re living beyond your means. Many parents aren’t heartless or foolish enough to spend their children’s allowance on frivolities, but will feel perfectly justified in spending it on necessities like milk or gas when family funds are running low. Similarly, many parents would feel justified spending money saved for promised Christmas gifts on an emergency car repair if they feel they have no alternate source of funds. From the adult perspective, this is eminently reasonable. Necessities like food and transportation must take precedence over frivolities like gifts and kids’ pocket money. But from the kid’s perspective, it is still a broken promise.

Even a child praised for his self-sacrifice in understanding his parents’ decision may nonetheless get the message that promised rewards aren’t worth waiting for. Heck, adult behavior is similarly influenced by an unreliable environment, so even a child “old enough to understand” that his college fund has disappeared due to a market crash or a family medical emergency may nonetheless find the disappearance of the promised funds demotivating. No wonder the advice “Don’t set up a college fund for your child. Make him understand from the beginning that he is to pay his own way,” is currently so popular in some circles. During tough economic times, it is a promise any parent can keep.

Poor people often find themselves in situations where it’s difficult to live within their means. Undoubtedly, many people are poor because they lack inherent self-control, but even poor people with good self-control find themselves unable to follow through as often as their better-off counterparts, as they’re more prone to changes in circumstance. Poor children, therefore, grow up in a more unreliable environment even when their family structure is stable. When economic fragility is paired with family instability — as it so often is among America’s poor — it’s no wonder that poor children disportionally mistrust adults and their promised rewards. Why should a teenager raised from infancy in an unreliable environment believe the adults who tell him that — if he works hard and stays in school, he can someday, perhaps years from now – escape the poverty he has known all his life? As Russ Roberts, whom Pethokoulis cited, notes, adults can tell kids lots of things, but that doesn’t mean they’ll believe them.

Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed, admits “We don’t yet have a curriculum or a real methodology that’s going to say: Here’s how you boost conscientiousness scores.” He speculates that talking up the importance of good character traits and “how hard work and conscientiousness now is going to lead to clear paths later” makes an impression on children. He notes that the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) has had great success fostering grit in kids, and speculates that KIPP’s strong group identity and its use of intense propaganda (“wall-to-wall messaging”) plays a role.

Unmentioned, though, is the role that the sheer reliability of the KIPP environment might play in fostering children’s apparent self-control. Perhaps what KIPP is really good at is giving children exactly what they were promised, maybe for the first time in their lives.

There are 45 comments.

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  1. user_1029039 Member
    user_1029039
    @JasonRudert

    Excellent post, Midge.

    • #1
  2. user_645127 Inactive
    user_645127
    @JenniferJohnson

    Really interesting. Thank you.

    • #2
  3. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

    says Celeste Kidd, a doctoral candidate in brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester and lead author of the study to be published online October 11 in the journal Cognition.

    Perhaps a study is in order to determine if one’s name has any influence on Their future endeavors.

    • #3
  4. user_966256 Member
    user_966256
    @BobThompson

    I’m trying to see how the focus on trust and promises made and kept or broken represents the core of this issue. As I recall my own development in a very resource scarce family setting, almost the only promise or commitment I can remember coming from my family elders was that I should apply myself and finish high school, behave honestly and fairly with others, and then I was on my on. I was born in 1938 and know that we were poor, but since many people had not much wealth or income its not easy to estimate what economic level we were in. So promises of something to be given or transferred from older adults was not much of a factor beyond noting that a lack of personal effort and reliance would mean failure in the future.

    I do think there has been a significant change in the behavioral ethic within our society that is not supportive of what I describe from my early years.

    • #4
  5. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    Great. Now when my kids don’t exercise self-control, I have only myself to blame. ;-)

    • #5
  6. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Bob Thompson:As I recall my own development in a very resource scarce family setting, almost the only promise or commitment I can remember coming from my family elders was that I should apply myself and finish high school, behave honestly and fairly with others, and then I was on my [own].

    It sounds like your parents were wise enough to avoid making you promises they’d be unlikely to keep. Rather than promising you rewards they couldn’t provide, they simply avoided promising you rewards. Makes sense to me.

    Question: When they promised you punishment, were they reliable about following up on it? For example, if they threatened to spank you if you did X, did they spank you once you had done X?

    • #6
  7. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Son of Spengler:Great. Now when my kids don’t exercise self-control, I have only myself to blame. ;-)

    As someone hoping to be a new mom soon, you have no idea how much writing this post has terrified me!

    • #7
  8. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Very thought provoking.  The Democrats promise goodies – and they deliver!

    The Republicans promise freedom, but with the payoff years in the future.  However, the Democrats also promise short-term relief for people struggling to get ahead, while at the same time bemoaning those “evil, non-caring Republicans who enjoy seeing you struggle.”  Even the people with grit are tempted to take a little freebie here and there, not knowing that they are undermining their own effort to come out on top at the end.

    • #8
  9. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Midge, I found this fascinating. But I think you went off on an unncessary tangent when you focused on broken material promises, like goodies.

    In my experience, kids listen to everything. And the vast majority of statements that children hear are about a range of mundane things –  do the parents habitually run late, do they fib to telemarketers? Do they lie to children about “coming home soon” when they are going away for several hours?

    Most parents habitually say what people want to hear in order to avoid conflict. Kids hear that – and they know that such a parent is not likely to be as reliable.

    But then take it to the next level: the kids who win the marshmallow test are more successful in life because they believe in other people being good – which means that they can overcome temptation to become good themselves.

    In other words, it is NOT merely about trusting the adults. It s about believing that, as individuals, we can learn to trust ourselves! That trust is a valuable component in becoming a highly successful person.

    • #9
  10. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: When they promised you punishment, were they reliable about following up on it? For example, if they threatened to spank you if you did X, did they spank you once you had done X?

    This is critical. Never, ever bluff. Deliver.

    And if there is any doubt, always fudge: “It is my intention..” or “I am planning on.” If you are careful about this, the kids learn the difference between “I will,” and “I would like to.” Trust is preserved.

    • #10
  11. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    iWc:Midge, I found this fascinating. But I think you went off on an unncessary tangent when you focused on broken material promises, like goodies.

    I agree the promises don’t have to be material. But, in the case of the marshmallow test, the rewards are material, making material analogies to the test most easy to grasp, and the effects of poverty on parental reliability are most easily visualized in concrete terms.

    Also, I think many parents are OK with breaking material promises to children as long as they keep their moral promises. And now I’m wondering how OK that really is.

    I do believe the simplest solution is to start by not promising your children many material goodies in the first place.

    • #11
  12. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: Also, I think many parents are OK with breaking material promises to children as long as they keep their moral promises. And now I’m wondering how OK that really is.

    On the contrary! Most parents lie easily about when they are coming home when the child is hysterical. Or they promise punishment, but easily change their minds. These same parents are often more punctilious about delivering on material goodies. What it means is that kids learn very quickly to hear the subtext of the words themselves.

    So most children of lousy parents hear, “you can eat one now, and if you pull a fit later, I’ll give you more.” Experience shows that it usually works that way. Besides, the kid does not really care that much about the marshmallow – today when we do not have real starvation in the Western World, it is love and a box within to to play (defined rules) that they crave.

    • #12
  13. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    It interests me that in many cultures, there is always a subtext, that truth is not important.

    I do not think it is coincidental that corruption rates are much higher in those countries.

    I know from firsthand experience that it is much harder to do business when your counterpart cannot accept your words on face value, and knows that if they cannot figure out the conspiracy, then the plot is too thick for them to risk being involved in it.

    And, of course, protestations that you mean precisely what you say are the worst kind of red flags. It only makes it worse. Nobody is so very stupid as to believe THAT kind of statement.

    • #13
  14. TG Thatcher
    TG
    @TG

    iWc:It interests me that in many cultures, there is always a subtext, that truth is not important.

    I do not think it is coincidental that corruption rates are much higher in those countries.

    I know from firsthand experience that it is much harder to do business when your counterpart cannot accept your words on face value, and knows that if they cannot figure out the conspiracy, then the plot is too thick for them to risk being involved in it.

    And, of course, protestations that you mean precisely what you say are the worst kind of red flags. It only makes it worse. Nobody is so very stupid as to believe THAT kind of statement.

    Didn’t it used to be that “I mean what I say and say what I mean” was very much expected from an American?  (Am I idealizing?)

    • #14
  15. Mike H Coolidge
    Mike H
    @MikeH

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Son of Spengler:Great. Now when my kids don’t exercise self-control, I have only myself to blame. ;-)

    As someone hoping to be a new mom soon, you have no idea how much writing this post has terrified me!

    Are you getting closer to going for it?!

    • #15
  16. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Mike H:

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Son of Spengler:Great. Now when my kids don’t exercise self-control, I have only myself to blame. ;-)

    As someone hoping to be a new mom soon, you have no idea how much writing this post has terrified me!

    Are you getting closer to going for it?!

    Yes. Much.

    • #16
  17. user_966256 Member
    user_966256
    @BobThompson

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: Question: When they promised you punishment, were they reliable about following up on it? For example, if they threatened to spank you if you did X, did they spank you once you had done X?

    Oh yes, absolutely. My most frequent disobedience was not arriving home before dark. This got to be so often, I would stop at the untrimmed hedge and pick the required hickory switch before entering the house – and I knew not to make it too small. I cannot imagine how this discipline could be handled today-I never felt mistreated since this was one of the expectations(promises?) I could count on. This was primarily from age six to twelve.

    • #17
  18. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    iWc:

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: Also, I think many parents are OK with breaking material promises to children as long as they keep their moral promises. And now I’m wondering how OK that really is.

    On the contrary! Most parents lie easily about when they are coming home when the child is hysterical. Or they promise punishment, but easily change their minds. These same parents are often more punctilious about delivering on material goodies.

    And if “be a good parent” means “do the opposite of what these bad parents do”, then a good parent is punctilious about punishment and moral rewards, but capricious about promised material rewards.

    I think that is how some good parents see it: the best way to be a good parent is to be as unlike the typical bad parent as possible. Being capricious toward your children about promised material goods can even be rationalized as providing your children with important lessons in self-sacrifice.

    I like your philosophy of, “Don’t bluff. Deliver,” better, though. A wise parent may promise his children very few material rewards, but if he promises one without hedging, it is because he knows he can deliver it.

    • #18
  19. user_352043 Moderator
    user_352043
    @AmySchley

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Mike H:

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Son of Spengler:Great. Now when my kids don’t exercise self-control, I have only myself to blame. ;-)

    As someone hoping to be a new mom soon, you have no idea how much writing this post has terrified me!

    Are you getting closer to going for it?!

    Yes. Much.

    Hope you have better luck than me and Mrs. of England.

    • #19
  20. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum
    @

    Great stuff, Midge and iWc…SoS, too.

    • #20
  21. Mike H Coolidge
    Mike H
    @MikeH

    Amy Schley:

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Mike H:

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    Son of Spengler:Great. Now when my kids don’t exercise self-control, I have only myself to blame. ;-)

    As someone hoping to be a new mom soon, you have no idea how much writing this post has terrified me!

    Are you getting closer to going for it?!

    Yes. Much.

    Hope you have better luck than me and Mrs. of England.

    My wife only went through one bad chemical pregnancy before we were successful. People can be so insensitive to this type of thing, so Amy, I’m so sorry what you’re going through. I wish you so much luck. We’re probably going to try for number two after I graduate… here’s hoping for all of us.

    • #21
  22. Marion Evans Inactive
    Marion Evans
    @MarionEvans

    Of course when it is a parent instead of a researcher administering the test to a child, the child will eat the first marshmallow right away and whine and cry for hours until you give them the other reward anyway.

    • #22
  23. iWc Coolidge
    iWc
    @iWe

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: Being capricious toward your children about promised material goods can even be rationalized as providing your children with important lessons in self-sacrifice.

    I did not write this well! I am NOT saying we should be unreliable in either sector! I am merely saying that material promises are a very small subset of the statements that parents make and children hear.

    Children listen for all inconsistencies, and learn from them.

    • #23
  24. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Bob Thompson:

    I never felt mistreated since this was one of the expectations(promises?) I could count on.

    I think that is key. You didn’t feel mistreated because your parents weren’t making unreliable promises. When your parents gave you an expectation, they fulfilled it.

    • #24
  25. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    Really excellent, Midge.

    • #25
  26. user_352043 Moderator
    user_352043
    @AmySchley

    iWc: In my experience, kids listen to everything. And the vast majority of statements that children hear are about a range of mundane things –  do the parents habitually run late, do they fib to telemarketers? Do they lie to children about “coming home soon” when they are going away for several hours? Most parents habitually say what people want to hear in order to avoid conflict. Kids hear that – and they know that such a parent is not likely to be as reliable.

    And honestly, this is a huge part of why I don’t want to teach my children about Santa Clause, the Tooth Fairy, or the Easter Bunny.  I care more about them being able to *trust* me than about giving them “the magic of the holidays” or “the wonder of childhood.”

    If I say punishment follows the transgression or reward follows the obedience, I want them to believe me.  And when I say that a man was punished for all their transgressions so that they won’t be, I want them to be able to say, “Yes, I trust you,” not “you mean like that magic man who flies around the world and sneaks down chimneys?”

    • #26
  27. Fake John Galt Coolidge
    Fake John Galt
    @FakeJohnJaneGalt

    Of Lord, please tell me that these Ivy League researchers are not so ignorant that they do not understand and are surprised to learn what the most basic of animal trainers already know.  It all matters, trust matters, reward matters, punishment matters, the environment matters, the past matters, but what matters most is consistency.  The more I find out about stuff like this the more it becomes apparent that there is an ignorance that only the very well educated seem to possess.

    • #27
  28. Fake John Galt Coolidge
    Fake John Galt
    @FakeJohnJaneGalt

    Amy Schley:

    iWc: In my experience, kids listen to everything. And the vast majority of statements that children hear are about a range of mundane things – do the parents habitually run late, do they fib to telemarketers? Do they lie to children about “coming home soon” when they are going away for several hours? Most parents habitually say what people want to hear in order to avoid conflict. Kids hear that – and they know that such a parent is not likely to be as reliable.

    And honestly, this is a huge part of why I don’t want to teach my children about Santa Clause, the Tooth Fairy, or the Easter Bunny. I care more about them being able to *trust* me than about giving them “the magic of the holidays” or “the wonder of childhood.”

    If I say punishment follows the transgression or reward follows the obedience, I want them to believe me. And when I say that a man was punished for all their transgressions so that they won’t be, I want them to be able to say, “Yes, I trust you,” not “you mean like that magic man who flies around the world and sneaks down chimneys?”

    Wait a minute.  Are you saying that Santa Clause, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny are not real?   ….   MMMOOOOMMMMM

    • #28
  29. user_352043 Moderator
    user_352043
    @AmySchley

    Fake John Galt:Of Lord, please tell me that these Ivy League researchers are not so ignorant that they do not understand and are surprised to learn what the most basic of animal trainers already know. It all matters, trust matters, reward matters, punishment matters, the environment matters, the past matters, but what matters most is consistency. The more I find out about stuff like this the more it becomes apparent that there is an ignorance that only the very well educated seem to possess.

    There is great wisdom in the suggestion that a couple wanting to be parents should adopt a puppy.  If you can master operant conditioning enough to raise a well-mannered dog, you’ll do fine with kids.  And if your dog ends up a brat, well, it’s a lot easier to get a bratty dog adopted into a good family than a bratty child.

    • #29
  30. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Fake John Galt:Of Lord, please tell me that these Ivy League researchers are not so ignorant that they do not understand and are surprised to learn what the most basic of animal trainers already know. It all matters, trust matters, reward matters, punishment matters, the environment matters, the past matters, but what matters most is consistency. The more I find out about stuff like this the more it becomes apparent that there is an ignorance that only the very well educated seem to possess.

    First, I think even very ordinary adults can easily overlook what their actions look like from a child’s perspective. Elite education is not required to make this mistake. The amazing part is that extremely intelligent and well-educated adults also make this mistake – that smarts are not nearly as powerful a cure for cognitive blindness as many hope.

    Second, I think results quantifying how much something matters are actually pretty interesting. Sure, lots of things matter. An estimate of how much one thing matters relative to other things can come in handy, though.

    • #30

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