From Marshmallows to Tracking in the American West

(Update 07/31/12: I just heard that Jonah Lehrer fabricated Bob Dylan quotes for “Imagine”, the book that inspired this post. Although I didn’t really rely on his work for this post, it seems prudent for you to keep that fact in mind while reading this. Let this be a reminder that science writing can sometimes be worse than misleading, and we should always maintain a sense of skepticism in reading.)

I’m currently reading Jonah Lehrer’s “Imagine”, a new book on what creativity is and where it comes from in the brain. He explores many, often contradictory, concepts and elucidates parts of creativity, which may be the quintessentially mysterious force of the universe. He talks about artists, such as Bob Dylan, who needed to retreat from a hectic tour to the middle of nowhere in Woodstock, New York to escape the musical world and reach his creative genius. He talks about academics and inventors, such as Paul Erdos, who needed amphetamines and caffeine tablets to focus intensely upon the problem at hand to be creative. Altogether, the book really is a great exploration of topics that can truly affect your approach to life, so even if you don’t get around to reading it, I recommend you listen to this hour-long segment on the local NPR affiliate where Jonah talks through many ideas and answers questions about creativity.

I’m a big fan of Jonah’s work, and as hipster cred, I was reading his blog, The Frontal Cortex, since before he published his first book, “Proust was a Neuroscientist”. His work is everywhere and is serious enough that I got a reference to it from my cognitive psychology class. We were talking about cognitive control, and psychologists love to use the marshmallow test as an accessible example of its importance. The test is simple: put a child in a room in front of a marshmallow and tell them that if they can resist eating it for 15 minutes, they will receive another marshmallow for 2 in total. Then, leave the room and see what happens.

They recently replicated the experiment, and you can watch a fun video of children squirming and sometime succumbing. Jonah had quite a good, albeit somewhat long, article in the New Yorker about the marshmallow test, where he goes into further detail for why people still care about a study done decades ago. Walter Mischel, who conducted the original test, surveyed the participants decades later, and discovered that those who could keep themselves from devouring the single marshmallow had higher SAT scores, better social skills, and a bunch of other presumably good traits. For a 15 minute test, it had incredible predictive power.

Upon analysis, they determined that the key was self-control. The ability to delay gratification and resist temptation was how those children avoided the trap of the marshmallow and kept up their study skills years later. Although these lasting effects from a young age may sound like a genetic predisposition, psychologists (last I heard) didn’t have a conclusive answer on whether self-control could be effectively trained as well. For the children in the test, the trick to success was some tactic other than sheer will. That might be imagining a glass box around the marshmallow or sitting on one’s hands.

A few years ago, self-control was the chic, super-finding in cognitive psychology that would make us all geniuses. All we had to do was figure out how to teach self-control. But psychology, being a common topic in popular science, has its own fads. Being a fad doesn’t necessarily make the finding any less true, but it may mislead the casual reader. For example, I think bilingualism was a psychology fad awhile ago: it’s still good for you, but it just isn’t the big new secret right now.

Right now, I think Jonah continues to lead the charge, and grit is up and coming. Grit is the fixation on a difficult goal, the will to overcome failure many times over, the constant push to learn against adversity. Jonah discusses it in “Imagine” as the flip side to classic notions of creativity. Exciting creativity is the moment of insight, like turning falling apples into a theory of gravity and burrs in clothing into velcro. Prosaic creativity is Beethoven rewriting the same bit of music dozens of times and Steve Jobs iterating through many designs of Apple products. It’s the latter case of single-mindedness where grit produces creativity.

So Jonah argues that grit is good for creativity, but he cites Angela Duckworth‘s work on it. She started in grit by trying to find the best predictor for the retention rate of West Point cadets through the first 2, very intense summer months of training. And as you might predict by my setup, grit best predicted success. It was a better predictor than SAT scores, self-control, school rank, leadership potential, and physical aptitude. These measures, which intuitively seem like the exact talents one needs to be successful, somehow don’t pan out as well as the ability to just “stick with it”, and further research by Duckworth has extended this finding into other domains.

This finding, at first glance, sounds like psychologists again telling us something we already knew. We’ve all heard the story of Michael Jordan getting cut from his high school team, practicing hard, and becoming the greatest ever. But even as we all agree, we still determine college admission by SAT scores, NFL draft picks by the Scouting Combine, and job offers from short technical questions in an interview. Clearly we need to refocus our society towards grit, and teach children to become grittier. Grit and self-control sound so similar; we should be able to roll it all into one.

But they’re not quite the same. Duckworth found a correlation of .66 between self-control and grit scores in National Spelling Bee contestants, which is strong, but not perfect. The difference between them is time. Self-control keeps you from reaching for an extra scoop of ice cream. Grit keeps you on your diet for years. It’s subtle, and I myself didn’t quite believe the difference until I reflected upon myself and saw them come apart.

I think I’m a pretty disciplined person. I don’t have any difficulty waking up with my alarm in the morning and don’t mind doing chores before it becomes critical. Like the children who best resisted the marshmallows, I use tricks to keep myself honest. My general approach is to be cynical about my future self. Today, I want to be productive tomorrow. Tomorrow, I’ll want to be lazy. To avoid falling into those traps, I put a lot of effort into tying my hands on things. I’ll make plans for a meal to force myself to go grocery shopping, put reminders all along my path, write extensive to do lists, or simply do things ahead of time. Overall, it works to keep me on-track day to day.

As proud as I am about that fact, it was a somewhat disappointing realization that I’m not a gritty person. I’m fortunate that I have been successful and happy with a lot of things that I do, yet I have let myself drop many passions after encountering adversity.

I was naturally gifted at tuba when my band director asked to consider switching freshmen year of high school, and I had a good run. I almost immediately got promoted to 1st chair in the top band and subsequently made region band the next 3 years, narrowly missing area my senior year. But then I came to college, auditioned for both the orchestra and wind ensemble, and made it to neither of them. I dallied around with jazz bass trombone, vaguely kept practicing tuba, and even played in the orchestra for a summer. But I mostly gave that up after those auditions.

In high school, I studied for the AP psychology exam out of interest and nailed that one. I came to college interested in psychology, only took my first psychology course junior year, then did research that summer. I applied for PhD programs the following winter, and was rejected from either 6 or 7 different programs. Now, I’m a software engineer who loves psychology but can’t really imagine enduring the same grad school application process again.

In a better life, I would be a grittier person, and even now, I feel as though simply being aware of this problem makes me better prepared to deal with adversity in the future. I know that this trait is a weakness of mine, and when things get tough, I just need to steel my mind with the discipline I have to do push through.

The close to this post is going to be somewhat awkward and may seem like a rationalization, but it’s mostly just rage at the half-truths of science journalism.

I gave you an amazing story about the importance of grit. Particularly, the West Point part had grit triumph over the classic winners (smarts and raw talent) as well as the recent incumbent (self-control) as the best predictor for success. Well, the study actually said that it was the best predictor for getting through the 2 months. The rest of the story takes a little more explaining.

In the study, Duckworth et al. measured performance not only on summer retention, but also on GPA the following spring and Military Performance Score, or MPS. MPS was aggregated from performance ratings on military-related activities, both academic and non-academic. The 3 different predictors used were grit, self-control, and Whole Candidate Score (or WCS, an acronym that unusually was not used in the original paper), which combined school rank, SAT scores, leadership potential, and physical aptitude.

As reported, grit best predicted summer retention, with self-control coming in next, and WCS being non-predictive. On GPA and MPS, however, grit was not the best predictor. WCS, which aggregates measures of aptitude, was substantially more predictive of these 2 measures, with self-control coming in 2nd on both (but not very strongly), and grit not correlating for much.

This isn’t a deathblow to grit: there are several other studies in the paper that demonstrate the importance of grit, and nothing said so far is untrue. The point here is that it’s important not to compare apples and oranges, and if you do, not to overstate what the results mean. Grit predicted retention because that’s what grit is: it’s hanging tough. WCS predicted MPS and GPA because that’s what WCS is: a weighted measure of past GPA and other performance ratings. Whether one result is a better definition for “success” is beyond me, but it’s important to know what the science says.

This post has wandered a lot, but I guess the short version is to be gritty, but don’t get too excited about it. It’s a funny feeling for me to find out that it took science to convince me to be a better person. Although I had questioned my persistence before, I only really believed it to be important when I read a paper that gave me specific results. I guess the self-help section dominates the popular psychology section in bookstores for a reason, but I think I’ll keep telling myself that I’m just in it for the science.

2 replies on “From Marshmallows to Tracking in the American West”

This is awesome. Had no idea you were so interested in psychology. How do you feel about cognitive dissonance? I thought it was BS, but it appears absolutely everywhere.

Also, love the psych fads. I think before bilingualism it was early childhood intelligence.

Thanks for the read!

Glad to hear you’re paying attention to psychology too, Rob! Remember, I did my undergrad is symsys, so I’m probably about 40% psych.

Yeah, cognitive dissonance is probably the most disappointingly real phenomenon I’ve heard of. I’m not really sure what the lesson to be learned from it is, other than perhaps to not expect people to change much no matter waht you do. If you’re interested in it, there’s a really good (albeit long) read on You Are Not So Smart about the backfire effect

It’s one of my favorite psychology blogs, though my attention span is perhaps only 75% as long as most of his posts.

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