I Want That Marshmallow Now!!
Barbara A. Fatum, M.Ed., Ed.D.

Another longitudinal study surfaced this month, reporting results that support the development of Emotional Intelligence (EI) competencies. The May issue of The New Yorker carried an article entitled, “Don’t,” which chronicled a 40-year groundbreaking study which initially videotaped six hundred and fifty-three 4- and 5-year old children struggling with self-control. The children were told to pick a treat from a tray of marshmallows, cookies, and pretzel sticks. A researcher then made each child an offer: either eat the treat right away or wait a few minutes while the researcher stepped out of the room. Successful waiting would yield two treats. Walter Mischel, the Stanford professor of psychology in charge of the experiment, found that only about thirty percent of the children were able to successfully delay gratification. They struggled with temptation, but found a way to resist.

Mischel and colleagues continued to track the subjects into their late thirties and found that high delayers (children who were able to resist the allure of the treat, usually a marshmallow) got higher S.A.T. scores, were more focused, got better grades, experienced more stability in their relationships and careers, and were more successful in life. Mischel came to believe that personality tests were on the wrong track. He believed that traits measured by personality tests were not broadly consistent, but varied by context. Individuals who could adapt to a changing context were the most successful. Mischel pioneered defining personality as context-specific – a measure of a person’s successful responses under differing conditions. If personality can’t be separated from context, how is it that some individuals are able to successfully adapt a variety of responses to differing contexts? What allowed high-delayers to wait in a research context like the one Mischel developed?

Mischel’s answer is Metacognition – the ability to think about thinking, weigh options, and create a plan. For the 4- and 5- year old children who were successful at waiting for the marshmallow, the plan included distraction. These children covered their eyes, hummed a tune, or told themselves a story while waiting for the researcher to return.

What is metacognition? In EI terms, it is becoming aware of options, weighing the value of those options, and realizing that choice is available in any situation. Self-awareness and Self-management are, according to the Six Seconds model of emotional intelligence, created through the first six EI competencies: developing emotional literacy, navigating emotions, applying consequential thinking, recognizing patterns, using optimism, and discovering intrinsic motivation. When we teach these competencies, we help children develop metacognitive skills which allow them to make good decisions in a variety of situations. At Six Seconds, we also believe that personality is not fixed, but fluid and plastic. When we practice metacognitive skills, we develop neural connections that increase our ability to understand our relationships and our environment, even as it changes.

For the second time this week, I am thrilled to find a longitudinal study that supports our conviction that children (and adults) need to develop EI competencies which will aid their individual, relational, and community-oriented success. (Another longitudinal study, the Harvard-based Grant study, emerged this month in The Atlantic, maintaining that social adeptness and relationships hold the key to both healthy aging and success and happiness in life.)

Walter Mischel is continuing his studies with schools in Pennsylvania, modeling behavior that teaches self-control. I wonder if he hasn’t missed the real point. Self-control develops from recognizing patterns, weighing consequences and using emotional data to make good choices. Intrinsic motivation is developed through the type of discussions generated by a program like Self-Science, which teaches young children to become aware of their emotions and to navigate them as they study themselves. These EI competencies are the real precursors to self-efficacy and self-control. As my dissertation research suggested, children who understand themselves develop intrinsic motivation which they are able to apply through changing outside circumstances. Shouldn’t we be teaching children to study themselves to develop EI competencies, rather that modeling behavior and rewarding its performance?

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