The merit of marshmallows

June 26, 2018

Let them eat marshmallows! It turns out the famous marshmallow test of willpower – the association between how long preschoolers can resist one marshmallow now for the promise of two later and higher test scores and earnings – did not replicate. Once the sample expanded beyond Stanford’s faculty daycare, and controls for parental social class and child characteristics were included, the effect of delayed gratification was much reduced.

But why did people take such psychological ideas so seriously in the first place?

At the outset, it is important to clarify that the recent replication failure does not tell us that willpower does not “matter.” It tells us specifically that willpower or delayed gratification measured in childhood doesn’t matter to academic attainment independently of parental social class and other factors. But it is the underappreciation of these other factors that led to a popular, yet misleading, narrative tying willpower to desert.

To understand how this began, let’s look at how Walter Mischel, the man behind the marshmallow test, got started in 1960s Stanford. Mischel set a model for today’s bestselling celebrity-psychologists, such as Angela Duckworth, by publishing popular books that combined simple summaries of their research with personal memoirs and how-to guides.

Mischel was a great example of the academic as a conceptual entrepreneur. With the Marshmellow Test, he not only wove a small study into a sweeping story, but also designed and packaged it for a mass market.

The marshmallow test, like the power-pose and today’s other most-watched TED talks, was perfectly marketed for people browsing the business or the self-help shelves. But why did other social scientists and policy makers take the idea of Willpower, and its recent echoes in Angela Duckworth’s Grit, so seriously?

Economists hit upon social psychological measures as they tried to resolve the puzzle of why qualifications and test scores did not, as they had theorized, predict wages. Men who earned a GED, labor economists noticed, were employed and paid less than those who graduated high-school. Cognitive skill differences, measured by IQ and other tests, could not explain this, so, led by the Nobel-winning Chicago economist James Heckman, they turned to “non-cognitive skills.”

Though poorly specified, the term non-cognitive skills most often referred to measures under the umbrella construct of self-control: delayed gratification, task persistence, conscientiousness, executive function, and the absence of behavioral problems that indicate a lack of control.

The idea of self-control as a skill determining economic success can be seen as an extension of the idea of human capital. Economists hit upon human capital as they tried to resolve the puzzle of why physical capital (land, stock and the number of workers) did not, as older models theorized, explain differing levels of economic growth.

Led by the Nobel-winning Chicago economist Gary Becker, human capital shifted the question of labor’s productivity from the macro to the micro level. Human capital makes us think of the worker as an individual economic agent, his (and the idea is androcentric) own producer, and the source of his earnings. Workers’ economic fate became less about labor’s collective control over capital, and more about the individual’s control over himself.

Human capital, as the scope of labor economics now shows, expands well beyond skills or education, to health, criminology, demography – whatever, as it is circularly defined, adds to labor’s productivity. But it is self-control that most clearly puts the human, his agency, will and power, into human capital.

But if the importance of self-control to success in the labor market was a novel idea for economists, it would not have surprised the classical sociological theorist Max Weber. An ethic of delayed gratification, he claimed, was part of modern capitalism’s emergence. Sociologists have long considered factors other than cognitive ability or formal qualifications in trying to explain socio-economic outcomes.

Models of status attainment developed in Wisconsin in the 1970s considered social psychological factors as well as intelligence and education. The difference was these were models of status transmission from parents to children; they sought to explain why inequalities persist, not the exceptions when they do not.

The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu deliberately used the term capital to describe non-economic resources, embodied in people, that would influence their economic trajectories. He might have also seen delayed gratification and perseverance as measuring a person’s ongoing investment in the ‘game’ that is socio-economic attainment.

In fact, Marxist economists Sam Bowles and Herb Gintis (with Melissa Osborne) most clearly spell out why individual factors like delayed gratification are rewarded: they complement the institutional incentives in schools and companies.

But cultural capital differs from human capital in that how much we have of it is not just a question of the rational cost-benefits of our investing in it. Bourdieu thought that unequal social-economic positions would persist, from parents to children and as economies became more rational or formally meritocratic (based on skills), precisely because they are reflected in enduring dispositions of mind and body.

As Jess Calarco describes, rich kids will ace the marshmallow test because of the economic situation they grow up in. Learnt early, self-control will actually require less effort or conscious cognitive control. And those whose early experiences are of ‘winning’ the game, having their efforts pay off, are more likely to want to keep playing it.

It’s enough that higher-class kids have this advantage, but as the idea of self-control and other non-cognitive skills became popularized in dialogue with journalists and commentators, their luck was transformed into a virtue. Over the last decade, character – a term that once meant moral qualities and integrity – appeared in bestselling titles and op-eds claiming it as the secret to educational and economic success, from likes of Paul Tough, David Brooks, as well as Heckman himself. Brookings devoted an entire collection to it.

Heckman and his colleagues emphasize character as learnt skills as opposed to innate traits. The claim is while intelligence may be fixed, noncognitive skills are malleable. And, if we can change them, we can clasp onto the idea of meritocracy, or equal opportunity.

Originally, meritocracy meant socio-economic positions would be rationally, and maximally productively, allocated on basis of ability (which education would proxy). Meritocracy was something to be achieved by the state: national economic planners. As educational and professional expansion failed to achieve (relative) social mobility, merit was updated to mean “ability plus effort”, with the emphasis on effort.  Under this adjusted formula, meritocracy would be achieved – or not – by individuals: rational economic competitors.

In fact, a current bestseller from Stanford psychology is Carol Dweck’s Mindset, which claims the secret to success is a growth mindset: the belief that ability is not fixed. The Third Way thinktank helped market the idea as “the mobility mindset”. Still, it never asks in what kind of social and economic contexts, and racial and gender orders, the belief that one can learn and do anything will develop.

The evidence that social-psychological skills are malleable independent of social class, and other skills is at least as thin as that for the marshmallow test. But the moral draw of character is deep. Intellectually, it fits with the liberal emphasis on the autonomous, rational self. Ethnographically, it accords with the value of personal effort and sacrifice, common to how both upper and working class men and women talk about their work and economic position.

The problem is when social scientists and policy commentators emphasize self-control and ignore its covariates, teachers, employers, and state administrators are permitted to do so, too. Using the popular language, they could say they are not judging people by the color of their skin (or their class or gender): they are judging people by the content of their character. (Though we can assume Dr. King had in mind higher standards than waiting for an extra marshmallow.)

Character’s location in the individual, by definition, fails to challenge the logic of social welfare retrenchment. Despite Heckman’s assiduous advocacy for the expansion of early childhood education, few states still offer it, at least on the intensive Perry Preschool model from which his evidence comes. Policy experiments show also that income transfers to families, and relocations to better neighborhoods can improve children’s non-cognitive skills.

But with few exceptions, governments have left non-profits to intervene on self-control itself.  Many charter school models, for example, declared “no excuses” for children’s lack of behavioral control. And, while other countries provide family allowances, in the United States programs like EMPath™ coach poor women in executive function.

Sociologists should expect that the benefits of programs that focus exclusively on individual cognitive-behavioral change will be marginal. We should be alert to the potential health costs of self-control found among low-income, African-American youth. But we should not mock psychological concepts, nor the moral story of merit and opportunity they can tell.

Social-cognitive psychology should be taken seriously, while we also take seriously whether its studies replicate and what factors they omit. The Marshmallow Test’s influence, and its sensitivity to sample and controls, should instead encourage us to return to some of the oldest sociological questions: how self-control relates to social control, and how the character of individuals relates to the character of society.

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