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Drawing Restraint: Marshmallows and Metacognition

Courtney Rennicke, Ph.D.As a parent, when you are pondering the multitude of ways that your child’s school curriculum, home environment, and social experiences might influence their success in life, you might want to reflect on a somewhat quieter, less flashy, albeit substantive contribution: how your child thinks about how they think or their awareness of their metacognition skills.

In the late 1960’s a study was conducted at the Bing Nursery School on the campus of Stanford University by Walter Mischel, Ph.D. He had four-year olds come into a room filled with the trifecta of salty and sweet treats: marshmallows, Oreo cookies, and pretzel sticks. Marshmallows seemingly made the biggest impression on the young study participants, as marshmallows tend to do.

A researcher then made each of the children a somewhat torturesome offer:

“[they] could either eat one marshmallow right away or, if [they] were willing to wait while he stepped out of the room for a few minutes, [they] could have two marshmallows when he returned. [The researcher] said that if [they] rang a bell on the desk while he was away he would come running back, and [they] could eat one marshmallow but would forfeit the second. Then he left the room.” (John Lehrer, The New Yorker, May 18, 2009)

As one might imagine, the reactions to this challenge were varied as each child struggled with the age old dilemma of delaying immediate gratification. Some children covered their eyes or turned around so they physically wouldn’t be able to see the treats, some gently stroked the marshmallow or cookie for vicarious tactile kicks, and some stared straight at sugary confections to keep their eyes on the prize. If you were to put yourself in these kids’ shoes, even as an adult, the capacity to delay the gratification right in front of you with no other distractions present is no easy feat.

That is why it is not surprising then that most kids lasted 30 seconds to a couple minutes and then submitted to their carnal delights and that only a few children even bothered to ring the bell before imbibing their treat of choice. However, approximately 30% of these young children held out and waited 15 whole minutes, a lifetime to a four year old with only a burgeoning sense of time, for the researcher to return and for them to receive their spoils: 2 marshmallows!

The crucial skill in delaying gratification appears to be what Dr. Mischel describes as “strategic allocation of attention” or what is referred to as metacognition, thoughts about how one thinks:

“Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow – the ‘hot stimulus’ – the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek under the desk, or singing songs from ‘Sesame Street’. Their desire wasn’t defeated – it was merely forgotten. ‘If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you are going to eat it,’ Mischel says. ‘The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.” (John Lehrer, The New Yorker, May 18, 2009)

So what exactly is Mischel’s marshmallow test studying? Why wouldn’t the capacity to delay gratification just be another indication of intelligence?

“For decades, psychologists have focused on raw intelligence as the most important variable when it comes to predicting success in life. Mischel argues that intelligence is largely at the mercy of self-control: even the smartest kids still need to do their homework. ‘What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t will power or self-control,’ Mischel says. ‘It’s much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it.” (John Lehrer, The New Yorker, May 18, 2009)

One of the caveats of this research story is that Dr. Mischel’s three daughters were participants in the study and attended Bing Nursery School. From time to time he would ask them what had become of their classmates and study co-participants. He started to do informal tally of how they were doing in school, in their careers and related it to how they responded during their early life as a marshmallow high-delayer, the impressive force of will present in 30% of the children, or the marshmallow low-delayers, the immediate seekers of saccharine delights. What he began to realize is that those high-delayers were doing better in school and scoring on average 210 points higher on their S.A.T.s, and that low-delayers were having more behavioral difficulties at home, school, and with friends. Thus, he realized a more formal follow-up study needed to be conducted.

This follow-up study has become an ambitious project undertaken by a team of researchers to retest the marshmallow kids as adolescents and young adults with a battery of neuropsychological tests, brain scans, called fMRIs, and genetic testing to get at the fundamental differences between the high- and low-delayers. In essence, these researchers want to know what self-control looks like at behavioral, cognitive, neural, and genetic levels. They are seeking the Rosetta stone for how we direct our attention to the world around us, which has implications for multiple fields of study, as well as what makes us fundamentally human and civilized in modern society.

Incredibly, all early results from this long-term study are finding that those children who waited 15 minutes for a marshmallow when they were 4 years old score higher and more accurately on tests that assess their ability to focus their attention to memorize a select group of words and respond precisely to certain images of faces, sometimes decades after their original experience in the room with those seductive marshmallows.

Now, before you begin to panic and fear that your child must definitely be in the low-delaying group and is destined for failure, you should be heartened to know that theses “strategic allocation of attention” or metacognition skills can be taught with success. When Mischel and his colleagues asked young children to pretend the marshmallows were just a picture or behind an imaginary frame, most were able to move from the problematic low-delaying to unimpeded high-delaying group.

In addition, the follow-up study is discovering that there is such a thing as being a late-bloomer when it comes to metacognition, as there was a group that moved over time from the low-delaying group to high-delaying group with all its related positive life and neurological outcomes.

Success in life comes from so many different factors and I hope that this post further takes the emphasis off of standardized testing and IQ scores and opens up the range of possible qualities that make people interesting, fulfilled, and proficient in their lives. I also hope that reading this post helps you to recognize the amazing skills that helps your very polite child delay gratification and gives you a smile or that helps you realize that your spunky, gratification-seeker might be able to wait a little longer with some metacognitive tips from you and gives you some hope.

References:

Leher, J. (May 18, 2009). DON’T! The New Yorker.

Eigsti, I.M., Zayas, V., Mischel, W., Shoda, Y., Ayduk, O., Dadlani, M.B., Davidson, M.C., Aber, J.L., & Casey, B.J. (2006). Predicting Cognitive Control From Preschool to Late Adolescence and Young Adulthood. Psychological Science, 17, 6, 478-484.

About the Contributor: Courtney Rennicke, Ph.D.,clinical psychologist, is an advisory team member and regular contributor to the NYC Firm Schools Blog in the area of parenting and child development.

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