But I want it now! How long can you wait? The importance of emotional intelligence

marshmallow 5

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?

1 marshmallow      marshmallow 2

Please share your ideas.

 

You can read more of Daniel Goleman’s work at Edutopia, and hear his talks and conversations at More Than Sound.

 

If you enjoyed this post, you may enjoy others. Please click the button at the top on the right to receive future posts by email.

 

24 thoughts on “But I want it now! How long can you wait? The importance of emotional intelligence

  1. Bec

    Wow Nor, what an insightful and entertaining article (and the comments too!). This seems to be close to one of those ‘everything’ topics. It immediately reminds me of Clive Hamilton’s book ‘The Freedom Paradox’, where he discusses the ideas of first and second order preferences. Second order preferences are our ‘big picture’ desires, such as a healthy climate, global equality, or even being an honest person or saving money. First order preferences are when we have very short term desires, such as cravings for fast food, cheap appliances, or choose to tell lies to achieve a small win of some sort. Hamilton presented that many of the challenges we have as a society result from an inability to suppress first order preferences (short term wins) in order to pursue second order preferences (long term wins). He also discusses how it is the first order preferences which are favoured by consumer society. Hamilton then discusses the term ‘akrasia’, which is where we act against what we know is best (for example when I drive a short distance, contributing to atmospheric pollution, rather than catching a bus, walking, or cycling). Here’s a nice article which seems to circle back even more closely to the marshmallow experiment(!): http://www.smh.com.au/news/business/how-market-forces-crowd-out-morals/2006/10/01/1159641209554.html. I recall you read Clive Hamilton’s Requiem for a Species a few years ago – though I don’t remember if these concepts were discussed! Thanks for, as always, your thought provoking writing.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Bec, Thanks very much for your very informative comment explaining first order and second order preferences. The linked article is also very interesting and I can see the similarities with the marshmallow experiment and also with the comments Charli made re marketing. I find the term ‘akrasia’ quite interesting. However I would say that, in many instances, knowing what is the best decision (for the long term) is not always easy when misinformation is rife, particularly in the marketplace. I think staying informed and having an open mind best equip one for making those second order decisions.

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  2. Cultivating Questioners

    I love how elegant and simple the marshmallow test is. I think emotional and social intelligence are so essential for schools to work on cultivating, but they can be quite controversial when what’s taught at school goes against how things work at home. I notice huge differences in my students in terms of emotional intelligence and can already see the ways that having more of it sets you off in the right direction. I think how to teach it is another challenge, because it doesn’t necessary fall within the “standards” districts are zeroed in on. It’s unfortunate that these essential life skills aren’t always what schools are focusing on.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Nicole, I agree that it can be difficult to find ways of developing students’ emotional intelligence when all the district seems to be interested in is the number on a test result. However it can be cultivated by modelling EI in your responses to students and the way that you guide them through their interactions with each other and how they respond to tasks. It is even more important for students from backgrounds where EI doesn’t find a strong base. Reflective teachers, such as yourself always seem to do a better job of it. Mainly because they have a higher EI anyway but also because they do reflect on their practice and constantly strive for improvement. Keep up the great work. Thanks for your comment. 🙂

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  3. Charli Mills

    Norah, my son is a research junkie of sorts. Actually he’s working on a masters in I-O psychology and loves researching research. He came over and read your article…liked that you referred to Goleman, who he said was the current champion of articulating and employing E.I. Then he said some things that were over my head–about self-monitoring and an individual’s overarching self portrayal. He made the point that the fault of this current field of study on E.I is that it has no coherent definition. My understanding only goes as deep as how such things are applied to marketing, managing teams and developing fictional characters. I asked him if he’d wait for the marshmallows, and he said that he’d “con the researchers into giving him more candy.” As his mum, I can say he’d try! He has an interesting strength called “Woo” which means he can win people over. Maybe he would have received three marshmallows…Thanks for giving me the opportunity to chat with him!

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    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Charlie, Thank you to both you and your ‘research junkie’ son for extending the conversation. I appreciate the difficulty with having no coherent definition and many of the comments have alluded to this: do we delay gratification for future gain or get what we can now as it may not be around in the future? I think many aspects of social sciences can be rather complex and difficult to define. While we may all share some commonalities, we are each an individual. I remember years ago when I was in college, behaviorism was the focus of our studies in psychology. I never liked it because, my opinion was, it said that push button A and everyone will respond in the same manner. I didn’t believe people to be that similar or predictable, rather I believed that we were all unique and able to make our own choices. Now I can see that there may be more similarities than I would like to think, but more differences too. The ‘over-arching self-portrayal’ is definitely unique to each individual. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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  4. Teagan Kearney

    I enjoyed reading your thoughtful post, Norah, and you make many valid points.
    Yes, I agree, in theory, emotional intelligence should be taught/stimulated in schools but unless this is practiced by the parents, I think it can only have limited (if any) effect as it’s easy to underestimate the influence of the home environment.
    On a lighter note, I’ve heard teenagers studying for exams being told ‘short term pain, long term gain’ and if you don’t study it’s ‘short term gain, long term pain’! One of the most insightful things I ever heard a child say, was a 7 year old girl who told her classmate ”Sometimes you just have to make yourself do things.” I thought this was amazing as there are times when I still can’t manage this!

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    1. Norah Post author

      What a clever child! If we listen to them, children can often offer words of wisdom in very unexpected ways. Too often we think we have to tell them, but most times they know themselves best! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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  5. Charli Mills

    Fascinating read. From the perspective of the business world, I know that marketers go to great lengths to turn wants into needs. For instance, you don’t ever see a pharmaceutical commercial actually focusing on how a person might need the medicine, you instead see images of an idealized life that expresses how we want to live thus the commercial implies that the pill will give us what we want.

    Therefore if we don’t teach or encourage emotional intelligence (delayed gratification, building resilience and developing empathy) we are creating the perfect consumers for the marketplace. As Anne mentions, consumer debt demonstrates the impact of consumerism on the need to be gratified this moment. And I think our digital world only enhances the expectations we have of instant gratification.

    Oddly enough–and I can’t say where or why I learned this–but I intentionally delay gratification. If there were 2 marshmallows and really wanted them, I’d imagine fixing s’mores and telling myself that I first have to do X, Y and Z. Somehow, it makes the marshies taste better when I sit down later having accomplished tasks. I would have been one of those kids distracting myself!

    Great post. So insightful!

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks Charlie,
      Your comment, and comments from others, add insight to the content of the article. It is great to have the discussion. Everyone adds a little more to the conversation, strengthening the understanding. I know what you mean about the immediacy of consumerism. It seems we all want the latest gadget, and we want it NOW – that is definitely the training of the marketplace, as you have pointed out.
      I find it interesting that you intentionally delay gratification. I guess I like to get jobs done before I have that break or cup of coffee. But that’s more because I know that once I stop, I won’t want to get started again and I would never accomplish anything. I like to be in work mode; get it all done, and then “play”. I don’t know how I’d fare if I just had to sit there and look at it though. Temptation could be too great to resist!

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  6. Sarah Brentyn

    I my gosh. I forgot about this. I heard about it years ago. I just experimented with my little one. One jelly bean now or two when I come back. He decided to wait right away but I took a long time and I came back with him sitting patiently waiting for the second one. No problem for him. I’ll have to try that with my other one. I think he will eat the one. Too spontaneous to wait.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for sharing these observations Sarah. How old are your little ones? He did very well to wait when you took a long time to come back. He obviously trusted you, knowing that you would do what you say; just as it should be. Anne also commented on the importance of trust between child and parent. Please let me know how your spontaneous one goes! He might surprise us all! I didn’t try it with my grandchildren, but I did talk to them about it and showed them the video (one is 41/2 and one is 21/2). The four year old told me he would wait for a little while and then he would eat it. Maybe I should ‘conduct the experiment’ next time I see them. 🙂

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      1. Sarah Brentyn

        Mine are much older (7 and 9) but the 9-yr-old would probably gobble it up. Like you said, though, he might surprise me. I can’t believe your grandkids already had an answer for what they would do at such a young age! 🙂

        I found the “delayed gratification, building resilience and developing empathy” fascinating in relation to the experiment. My little one can wait days for something he wants, my older one grabs whatever is there at the time. Interestingly, my little one is extremely sensitive and empathetic, my older one…not so much.

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        1. Norah Post author

          It is interesting, isn’t it, how different siblings can be from each other when the environment, and genetics, they share is very similar. Who they are is neither a result of just environment or just genetics, nor even just a combination of both, it is something unique to the individual. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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  7. Diane

    The video was hilarious (watching the kids put their noses on it, stare at it, pretend to eat it, try to distract themselves from it….too funny!). As for teaching “emotional intelligence” in schools, I think it is a must. One look at how ill-prepared students are for the real world, tells us that there needs to be a shift in schools to go beyond the cognitive. And no, that does not mean simply heaping yet another responsibility on to teachers. To me, it means a fundamental shift in the role schools take in how they prioritize healthy emotional growth (as a necessary foundation) versus “traditional” learning. PS: I would have waited for the second marshmallow

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    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Diane, Thank you so much for your lovely thoughtful comment. Those kids were so strong. I’m not sure if I could have held off that long at that age! I agree with you that a fundamental shift needs to be made in the way schools prioritize emotional health. Some programs are being implemented and some schools are taking the role more seriously. It is very difficult for teachers to find time for the caring part of their profession when so much direct instruction is dictated to ensure standards on assessment tasks can be reached. Thanks for sharing that you would have waited for the marshmallow. I’m sorry I didn’t think to do a poll. Looks like most writers would have waited – but then delayed gratification is par for the course with writers; except now with blogging and other forms of social media, of course. 🙂

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for popping by Karen. I appreciate your comment. I agree that emotional intelligence is underrated. I’m pondering how differently parents and teachers may approach it if it can be stimulated rather than taught. You have given me something to think about there. Thanks. 🙂

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  8. Annecdotist

    Great post, Norah. I’m sure this skill could and should be taught. So many people land themselves in debt because they can’t resist the advertisers telling them they must want the shiny new things.
    But there’s another side to it, or 3, IMO. Firstly, the child needs to trust that the promised rewards will come. Partly this comes from having parents who have NOT made them wait when they were too young to tolerate it, ie parents who were responsive to a baby’s cry. Secondly, there is another skill for the children to learn which is knowing what they want, which might be different to what their parents or teachers say is good for them. When I was young there was a saying “I want doesn’t get” which seems to be about humiliating kids into keeping their mouths shut. A third skill that should go alongside these is the capacity to live in the moment — we shouldn’t be SOLELY focused on future goals to the extent that we lose sight of what we have in the here and now.
    Dead easy being a teacher, isn’t it?

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    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Anne, Thanks for your wonderful comment, adding insight and considered opinion. I agree with the other considerations you raise and agree that it is certainly a balancing act, choosing between what we have now and what we may achieve in the future. I don’t know how long I would have waited for another marshmallow, probably not long as there were not many available to me as a child. However I think I have learned to wait, maybe because there weren’t many (not marshmallows in particular) around I knew that although my needs may be met, my ‘wants’ were another matter. I agree with you about responding to a child’s needs, especially a baby’s cry and certainly am not in favour of humiliating children to keep their mouths shut. Parenting is definitely the most difficult role possible and there is very little training or support for it, but always lots of criticism. I think anything that can be done to make the role of parents and teachers in helping children develop into well-adjusted adults is of benefit to everyone. Thank you for broadening the understanding. 🙂

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