Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What do Marshmallows have to do with Youth Development?

Don Siegel

What does eating Marshmallows have to do with youth development?  This sounds like a trick question, but in reality, it turns out that marshmallow eating and youth development work are intricately connected. How so, one may ask?

A new book entitled “The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control” by psychologist Walter Mischel tells us about a research program started decades ago with preschoolers. In the paradigm that he, colleagues, and his students used, children were told that they could either eat one marshmallow now, or get two marshmallows if they were willing to wait a few minutes. This was a test of what he labeled “delayed gratification”, or impulse control. As might be expected, some children attacked the marshmallow immediately, but some also were willing to wait in order to get the promised two marshmallow reward. While he writes about how those who waited were able to do so, what really makes this research so interesting is that children in both groups were tracked over decades to determine whether those who were able to “delay gratification” differed from those who opted for “immediate gratification”. What he found is quite astounding. Years later, as adolescents, those who delayed gratification, had “…higher SAT scores, social competence, self-assuredness and self-worth, and were better able to cope with stress, more likely to plan ahead, and more likely to use reason. They were less likely to have conduct disorders or high levels of impulsivity, aggressiveness and hyperactivity. As adults, the high delayers were less likely to have drug problems or other addictive behaviors, get divorced, or be overweight.”

Clearly, being able to control one’s impulses, and in this case, delay gratification and forego immediate rewards in order to gain even more powerful rewards at some future time is a core capacity that permeates just about everything that we do in youth development programs. This is because the aggregate of knowledge, skills, and values that we teach are invariably directed towards helping youth to be successful at endeavors such as school, sports, the arts, music, and other activities that require hours of dedicated study and practice. Those hours are often like the time delay of the marshmallow test in that youth can opt for using such time in immediately gratifying activities such as playing computer games, watching TV, or just hanging out with friends or pursuing less immediately rewarding activities such as studying for an exam, drilling on a sports skill, or playing monotonous scales on an musical instrument.

While we in the youth development world may not think of ourselves as promoting capacities that foster the ability to delay gratification, when we look at what we teach it becomes more evident that this is exactly what we are doing. For example, in one way or another we teach the “growth mindset” which is a way to think about ourselves as life long learners. In support of such, we teach our youth how to set goals, deal with set-backs; persevere (show “grit”); control emotions; focus attention; avoid distractions; minimize interpersonal conflict; and build social support to reinforce one’s striving, especially during periods of little overt progress or when experiencing high amounts of stress.

That some youth are better than others at controlling their impulses and working on longer term goals is evident from decades of behavioral research, and more recently, from studies that show differential activation in brain centers that have been identified as “hot” areas (i.e., those associated with impulse satisfaction) in the more primitive limbic system, and those associated with “cold” areas in the more recently developed neo-cortex. While Mischel writes about how and why these dueling systems developed over time, and the nature-nurture debate about how individual heredity and early experiences strengthen or weaken their manifestations, he also conveys that strategies can be taught and learned to enhance the expression of “cold system” thoughts and behaviors, when such will benefit an individual. In simplest terms, he explains that those young children who were able to wait for the researcher to return to the testing room, in order to get two marshmallows, rather than going for the instantaneous single marshmallow reward, did not simply do so because they had a superior “cold system”, but because they had crafted strategies to divert their attention so that they did not dwell on the powerful sensations associated with eating a marshmallow. Mischel writes:

 Successful delayers created all sorts of ways to distract themselves and to cool the conflict and stress they were experiencing. They transformed the aversive waiting situation by inventing imaginative, fun distractions that took the struggle out of willpower: they composed little songs (“ This is such a pretty day, hooray”; “This is my home in Redwood City”), made funny and grotesque faces, picked their noses, cleaned their ear canals and toyed with what they discovered there, and created games with their hands and feet, playing their toes as if they were piano keys. When all other distractions were exhausted, some closed their eyes and tried to go to sleep— like one little girl who finally dropped her head into her folded arms on the table and fell into a deep slumber, her face inches from the signal bell. While these tactics were a marvel to behold in preschoolers, they are familiar to anyone who has ever been trapped in the front row at a boring lecture[1].   

The message from these initial studies, and those conducted subsequently on impulse control, is that virtually anyone can create or be taught strategies to frame situations in such a way as to decrease the impulse to act immediately when more deliberate planning and thoughtful restraint will serve to benefit them more.

An interesting side note, discussed by Mischel, of particular interest to youth development programs that attempt to develop assets in participants that have transferable value across contexts is that the capacity to control “hot” areas is largely situation specific. Despite initial beliefs that people possessed generalizable traits that manifested themselves consistently across contexts, research and current events tells us that such traits only represent a potential for behavior. Current conditions, and environments can play an overpowering role in how one behaves, despite inherent dispositions. As Mischel conveys, well know persons such as former president Bill Clinton, or golfer Tiger Woods had an incredible ability to forgo immediate gratification (highly controlled individuals we might have thought) in pursuit of their core goals (i.e., political or sport success), but when it came to other aspects of their life, were unable or unwilling to invoke the same deliberate control and discipline, which ultimately got them into trouble.

The message here, for those of us attempting to help youth develop assets that are deployable across contexts, is to be deliberate about teaching for transfer. In Mischel’s way of thinking, he suggests that individual’s must not only possess capabilities, but understand how to deploy them. A large part of this entails thinking in terms of “If”…”then” in that “if” a certain situation arises, and I have a tendency to behave rashly or without forethought (i.e., the “hot” system predominates), and this results in less than optimal outcomes, as may be expected, “then” I need to step back and draw on those assets I possess, perhaps deployed in other contexts, and exert control (i.e., invoke the “cold” system) so that my behavior helps me to achieve what I want, or, at least does not derail me from achieving what I wish to achieve. In a sense this is what cognitive behaviorists allude to as “inoculation training”, which entails helping individuals make decisions and prepare for situations that they may subsequently encounter so that they perform optimally in the heat of the moment, rather than being usurped by their “hot”, impulsive, systems.

Overall, The Marshmallow Test, helps those of us working with youth to better understand what it is that we are trying to achieve. In essence we are teaching our kids an array of things, and helping them to build an arsenal of capabilities that can be deployed across a range of situations so that they are ultimately successful in transitioning from childhood to adolescence, and then to adulthood. Most importantly, we are teaching them self-understanding, and how to negotiate the maze of situations in their lives that can result in a happy and healthy future, or to derail them from having such lives. Optimal development, as Mischel shows us, is intricately tied to waiting for that second Marshmallow, which is all about recognizing and controlling our “hot” impulses in order to acquire greater long-term rewards.

[1] Mischel, Walter (2014-09-23). The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control (Kindle Locations 328-334). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.