In my previous post Life: a choose your own adventure – how do you choose I discussed the difficulties we may experience in prioritising options and choices, and the need to be self-regulatory in performing tasks and achieving goals.
The discussion reminded me of the marshmallow test I had heard about from Daniel Goleman in his book “Emotional Intelligence”.
The marshmallow test was a study conducted in the 1960s by Walter Mischel .
As described by Daniel Goleman, “In this experiment four-year-olds from the Stanford University pre-school were brought to a room and sat in a chair in front of a juicy marshmallow on a table. The experimenter then told them they could eat it now, or get two if they were willing to wait until the experimenter came back from running an errand.“
You can watch a video demonstrating the experiment here:
Some children could not wait and ate the marshmallow as soon as the examiner left the room. Others toyed with the idea of waiting, but were unable to resist the temptation. Others were able to wait and scored two marshmallows when the examiner returned.
While this study revealed certain aspects of childhood behaviour, follow-up studies into the behaviour of these children when young adults and graduating from high school revealed that “Those who waited, compared to those who grabbed, were more popular with their peers, had less trouble delaying gratification, and scored far higher on achievement tests.”
A further study, conducted 40 years later, as reported by Sylvia R. Karasu writing for Psychology Today, found that “the ability to resist temptation is fairly stable over the lifecycle and predictive of behaviors 40 years later!”
Goleman talks about the important role of parents in supporting children to develop the ability to control impulses and choose behaviour. As children learn to internalise and choose the ‘no’ imposed by others, they learn to regulate impulsive behaviour. He calls it the ‘free won’t’, “the capacity to squelch an impulse.”
Karasu supports this by saying that “The researchers also suggested that a family environment where “self-imposed delay” is “encouraged and modeled” may give children “a distinct advantage” to deal with frustrations throughout life.”
Goleman says that the ability to curb dangerous impulses is an aspect of emotional intelligence, “which refers to how you handle your own feelings, how well you empathize and get along with other people. (He says it) is just a key human skill.”
He continues by saying that “it also turns out that kids who are better able to manage their emotions . . . can pay attention better, take in information better, and remember better. In other words, it helps you learn better.”
It sounds like emotional intelligence is something that all schools should be developing, don’t you think?
Goleman says that the “ability to delay gratification hinges on a cognitive skill: concentrating on the good feelings that will come from achieving a goal, and so ignoring tempting distractions. That ability also lets us keep going toward that goal despite frustrations, setbacks, and obstacles.”
Without that ability it may be difficult for any of us to achieve our goals. Saving for the future, studying towards a qualification, working harder now to have time off later; none of these would be possible without the ability to delay gratification.
But can emotional intelligence be taught? And should it be taught in schools?
It seems to me that if emotional intelligence is able to predict “success” in later life, then it is important to develop it as early as possible. This can begin in the home with parents helping their children learn to delay gratification, build resilience and develop empathy.
I believe it is important to make a place for programs that develop emotional intelligence in schools. Children need opportunities to internalise emotionally intelligent responses to a variety of situations. A very structured, force-fed, content driven, test based approach where almost every action is directed and monitored leaves little room for students to develop skills of self-regulation.
Discussions of whether emotional intelligence can, or importantly should, be taught in schools can be read here and here. The theory is that children can no more “pick up” emotional intelligence than they can “pick up” maths or English. To leave it to chance seems to be denying our children the opportunity to develop skills that will help them lead happy and successful lives.
What do you think? Would you have one marshmallow now, or double it later?
Please share your ideas.
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