By Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell
While each year thousands of studies are completed in psychology and education, there are a handful that over the years have had a lasting impact on education and learning. In a series of Extra Credit articles, I have been highlighting several seminal studies that have had a profound impact on teaching and learning.
Article 10 in this series explores the importance of delayed gratification, especially how demonstrating delayed gratification early in life can be sound predictor of academic success.
Most adults realize that life is full of want to, need to and have to. Want to might be vacations, a dream house/car, dessert or eternal happiness. Need to might include a well-balanced diet or a job. The have to might include going to the dentist or spending Thanksgiving with your Uncle Mike.
For me, a want to is some day to attend the Summer Olympics with an all access pass that gets me great seats to all the events. A need to is to eat healthier foods, because I really like a lot foods that are not on the top 10 most healthy list. A have to is watching Dancing with the Stars with my wife.
For the vast majority of us, the need to and have to consume far more of our time than the want to. We need to delay gratification, typically, for our want to, and some of us are better than others.
I had a college professor who liked to say, “Simplicity is elegance and elegance is simplicity.” This very much applies to the study under focus for this Extra Credit contribution.
In 1972, Walter Mischel of Stanford University set out to study whether delayed or deferred gratification can be an indicator of future academic success.
In this this very simple experiment, children ages 4 to 6 were shown to a room by the experimenter. A marshmallow was placed on a plate in front of the children. The children were then told they could eat the marshmallow immediately or wait 15 minutes until the experimenter returned. If the children waited, they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow to eat.
Mischel recorded how long each child delayed eating the marshmallow. Of the approximately 600 children in the study, a few ate the marshmallow right away, some before the experimenter left the room. A majority, eventually broke down and ate the marshmallow before the 15 minutes was up. About one-third delayed gratification long enough to receive the second marshmallow.
[Take the time to view this short video that highlights the experiment. The young children are precious as they exert all their willpower to try and stop themselves from eating the marshmallow. ]
The initial data was then compared with longitudinal data collected over a number of years. A number of comparisons were made to academic success indicators, such as grades and SAT scores. The results clearly showed that the four 6-years-olds who delayed gratification fared much better on these indicators. Ultimately, the findings point to foundational differences in individual traits that predict success.
This elegant experiment was a simple, yet powerful, mechanism for operationalizing embedded and fundamental individual differences among human beings. Some of us, me included, were born more impulsive (I’m pretty sure I would not have been able to hold out for 15 minutes). Often, a trait such as impulsiveness does not jibe with K-12 academic success, especially in traditional schools, using traditional measures.
It might not be surprising that those young children who were able to delay gratification tended to do better on measures of academic success. After all, the K-12 school experience is often an exercise of delayed gratification, and these students were clearly better at it.
As students proceed through their daily routines, they delay gratification as they await their favorite classes or much-beloved extracurricular activities (their “wants”), knowing that they “need” or “have to” participate in the classes that they may not enjoy as much.
For me, the research highlights an essential idea. Schools might think about providing more explicit instruction on how to think not just what to think. That is, teaching students strategies regarding how to think are as vital as teaching students formal content. More specifically and for the purposes of this article, can schools educate students to be better able to delay gratification? I think so.
For example, at Currey Ingram we explicitly teach students to understand and utilize executive functioning skills. Based on the abundance of current research extolling the importance of honing one’s executive functioning skills, we give students explicit instruction on how to maximally exploit this important cognitive process. Included in the instruction are strategies students use to control impulses, strategies to exert control over and regulate emotional extremes, strategies that enhance flexible thinking, strategies that develop self-monitoring, planning/prioritizing, task initiation and organization.
These can be developed in many ways at home and at school. For example, while playing a traditional schoolyard game (i.e., “Red Light, Green Light), the rules might be modified slightly to strengthen the muscle of inhibitory control by going on “red” and stopping on “green.” A teacher or parent could also use “think alouds” when playing cards or board games; this helps children to understand strategy and problem solving.
Thinking metaphorically about the marshmallow temptation example from Michel’s study, you can see how building executive functioning skills would help with placing the metaphorical marshmallow aside until the appropriate time.
Moreover, teaching students the skills that make it easier to delay gratification in this age of instant gratification is extra important. The relative wealth and excess of modern Western society, coupled with the explosion of technological access, makes the challenge daunting. Nevertheless, we must do so.
It is interesting what marshmallows can tell us. But as the layers are peeled back on this deceptively complex experiment, the implications for person, school and society become clear. At schools we have a clear obligation to teach students how to think about challenges like delaying gratification. So, that in the end we all have a solid understanding and a good balance of want to, need to and have to.
Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell is head of school at Currey Ingram Academy.