Archive for June, 2012

Emotional Intelligence Part II: Walter Mischel, Delayed Gratification and the Marshmallow Test

June 26, 2012

My interest into emotional intelligence began with this study by psychologist Walter Mischel in the 1960s that my mother recounted to me. 4-year-olds were given a marshmallow by an experimenter and offered a second marshmallow if they could hold off eating the first marshmallow until the experimenter returned from their errands. The experimenter would leave for 15 to 20 minutes. Some kids could hold out, others less so.

In his seminal book “Emotional Intelligence”, Daniel Goleman details the longitudinal findings from the experiements:

Some 4-year-olds were able to wait what must surely have seemed an endless 15 to 20 minutes for the experimenter to return … These plucky preschoolers got the 2-marshmallow reward. But others, more impulsive grabbed the one marshmallow, almost always within seconds of the experimenter’s leaving the room on his “errand.”

The Diagnostic power of how this moment of impulse was handled became clear some 12 to 14 years later, when these same children were tracked down as adolescents. The emotional and social difference between the grab-the-marshmallow preschoolers and their gratification-delaying peers was dramatic. Those who had resisted temptation at 4 were now, as adolescents, more socially competent: personally effective, self-assertive, and better able to cope with the frustrations of life. They were less likely to go to pieces, freeze, or regress under stress, or become rattled and disorganized when pressured; they embraced challenges and pursued them instead of giving up even in the face of difficulties; they were self-reliant and confident, trustworthy and dependable; and they took initiative and plunged into projects. And, more than a decade later, they were still able to delay gratification in pursuit of their goals.

The third or so who grabbed for the marshmallow, however, tended to have fewer of these qualities, and shared instead a relatively more troubled psychological portrait. In adolescence they were more likely to be seen as shying away from social contacts; to be stubborn and indecisive; to be easily upset by frustrations; to think of themselves as “bad” or unworthy; to regress or become immobilized by stress; to be mistrustful and resentful about not “getting enough”; to be prone to jealousy and envy; to overreact to irritations with a sharp temper, so provoking arguments and fights. And, after all those years, they were still unable to put off gratification.

Even more surprising, when the tested children were evaluated again as they were finishing high school, those who had waited patiently at 4 were far superior as students to those who had acted on whim. According to their parents’ evaluations, they were more academically competent: better able to put their ideas into words, to use and respond to reason, to concentrate, to make plans and follow through on them, and more eager to learn. Most astonishingly, they had dramatically higher scores on their SAT tests. The third of children who grabbed for the marshmallow most eagerly had an average verbal score of 524 and quantitative (math) score of 528; the third who waited the longest had average scores of 610 and 652, respectively—a 210-point difference in total score.

At Age 4, how children do on this test of delay of gratification is twice as powerful a predictor of what their SAT scores will be as is IQ at age 4 (IQ only becomes a stronger predictor of SAT only after children learn to read).

What Walter Mischel, who did the study, describes with the rather infectious phrase “goal-oriented self-imposed delay of gratification” is perhaps the essence of emotional self regulation: the ability to deny impulse in the service of a goal, whether it be building a business, solving an algebraic equation, or pursuing the Stanley Cup.

The ability to delay gratification and control impulses is something even some adults struggle to do. How many of your players could pass the marshmallow test? It’s the difference between knowing what to do and being able to do what one knows.

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