One of the most famous behavioural experiments of the 20th century was carried out at Stanford University in 1972. A marshmallow was offered to children on the understanding that if they could resist eating the marshmallow, they would receive two later on. How long each child resisted the temptation was carefully noted. The study drew fascinating conclusions. Children who were able to delay gratification at age four were significantly more competent, achieved higher standardised test scores and were more successful across a wide range of criteria.
Children who were most impulsive at age four went on to score an average of 524 in verbal and 528 in math on the SAT test. Those who controlled their impulses scored an average of 610 in verbal and 652 in math. It is hard to believe that this astounding difference was predicted on the basis of a marshmallow! In fact, this response turns out to be twice as good at predicting success than IQ tests.
Less well known is a follow-up to this experiment carried out by researchers at the University of Rochester in 2012. In this experiment, before offering the marshmallows, the children were split into two groups. The first group was given a number of 'unreliable experiences' before the marshmallow test. For instance, the researchers promised to give the children certain things but never did. The second group was given a number of 'reliable experiences'. For instance, whenever the children were promised something, it actually happened.
When the marshmallow experiment was then carried out, the impact was predictable but fascinating. The children who had unreliable experiences beforehand had no reason to trust the researchers and ate the marshmallow before waiting for a second one. The children in the group who had reliable experiences beforehand saw the advantages of delayed gratification and waited for the second marshmallow.
In other words, the children’s ability to demonstrate self-control was strongly influenced by the experiences that surrounded them. Just a few minutes was enough to nudge the children one way or another.
There are two important lessons here. First, if our children are to succeed, they will need to develop the ability to defer gratification.
This is the ability to choose to do something harder than to choose to do something much easier. Second (and most importantly), our children can develop greater self-control and the ability to delay gratification if they’re in an environment which is reliable, predictable and delivers on what it promises.
The remarkable link between impulse control and success points us to a deeper wisdom – that the path of least resistance is not always the best path and that the benefits of sticking with something difficult and challenging can yield a greater reward. According to University of Pennsylvania psychologist, Angela Duckworth, this ability to stick with things (what she calls 'grit') matters more in achieving our full potential than intelligence, skill, or even grades. So, how do we develop 'grit' at Kristin?
• We deliberately offer young people challenges knowing full well that some of the challenges will be daunting.
• We actively promote perseverance by holding young people firmly to the commitments they make.
• We encourage young people to try even if we know it may lead to failure (and we gladly allow them to experience disappointment).
• We work hard to create a 'reliable environment' at Kristin – one where promises are kept and individuals are urged to stay true to their word.