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2018

For my Intro Psych course, I spend a lot of time thinking about what the future medical professionals, engineers, business leaders, and politicians taking my classes need to know about psychology. In the disorders chapter, I ask students to raise their hands if they, a friend, or a family member has been diagnosed with a psychological disorder. About 2/3 of the hands go up. My students or someone they know could benefit from seeing a psychotherapist. Intro Psych textbooks include information about what psychotherapy is, but how often do they cover how to find a psychotherapist?

 

The American Psychological Association (APA) provides a “how to choose a psychologist” page, a page that “may be reproduced and distributed for noncommercial purposes with credit given to the American Psychological Association.”  At minimum, provide a link to this page in your course management system. If you have the resources, print and distribute to your students.

 

If time allows, this topic lends itself to a jigsaw classroom. Divide your students into 6 groups. If that would make your group size too large (say, over 5 per group), divide your students into 12 or 18 groups. Each group gets one of the “questions to ask” a psychologist bullets from the “how to choose a psychologist” page with the following instructions.

 

Group A:

 

“Are you a licensed psychologist? How many years have you been practicing psychology?”

 

Using the Internet, find out what it takes to become a licensed psychologist (in our state, province, country – use whatever geographic dimension applies to your location). If licensure includes a doctoral degree or internship accredited by the American Psychological Association (APA), find out what a university or internship needs to do to receive that accreditation.

 

Group B:

 

“I have been feeling (anxious, tense, depressed, etc.) and I'm having problems (with my job, my marriage, eating, sleeping, etc.). What experience do you have helping people with these types of problems?”

 

Refer to the examples at the end of this page. How would each of the people in these examples ask this question. Identify five problems that are commonly experienced by students. For each problem, write out how a student could phrase the issue to a practicing psychologist.

 

Group C:

 

“What are your areas of expertise — for example, working with children and families?”

 

Referring to this chapter of your textbook, what areas of expertise might a practicing psychologist identify? (Hint: think populations of people who may benefit from psychotherapy and the types of issues people may have.)

 

For each of the examples given at the end of the page, what areas of expertise should the practicing psychologist have?

 

Group D:

 

“What kinds of treatments do you use, and have they been proven effective for dealing with my kind of problem or issue?”

 

Using the information in this chapter, identify at least five different treatments that a practicing psychologist might use.

 

For each of the examples given at the end of this page, identify the treatment or treatments that may be appropriate.

 

Group E:

 

“What are your fees? (Fees are usually based on a 45-minute to 50-minute session.) Do you have a sliding-scale fee policy?”

 

Using the Internet, identify the typical fees charged by practicing psychologists in our area. What is a sliding-scale fee and how does it work? How often can one expect to attend therapy sessions? How many sessions can one expect to attend?

 

Group F:

 

“What types of insurance do you accept? Will you accept direct billing to or payment from my insurance company? Are you affiliated with any managed care organizations? Do you accept Medicare or Medicaid insurance?”

 

This document provides more information about insurance and psychotherapy: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/parity-guide.pdf. Summarize the major issues to consider. What questions should you ask your insurance carrier before contacting a practicing psychologist?

 

Mingle amongst the groups, answering any questions that arise.

 

After the groups have finished answering their questions, students are to make sure that everyone in their group knows the answers. Reconfigure the groups so that one person from each A to F group is in a new group together. One relatively quick way to do this is to give the members of each group a different colored index card or half sheet of paper. Group A, for example, gets aqua, Group B get dark blue, Group C gets cherry red. When the groups get split up and reassembled, members of the new group will hold up their colors. There should be at least one person for each of the six colors in the new group. Any group who is missing a color can yell for that color: “We need an aqua!”

 

In their new groups, each student reports what they learned about their bullet point. Again, mingle amongst the groups, answering questions.

 

After students have finished sharing within their groups, bring the class back together, and ask students if they feel more informed about choosing a psychotherapist than they did before class started. Answer any remaining questions.

 

Now that students know the questions to ask a psychotherapist, they still need to find a psychotherapist to ask. For people who live in the US or Canada, APA offers a helpful locator service: https://locator.apa.org/. At the time of this writing (June 2018), the website reports that it is “currently undergoing renovations.” Use the drop-down menu to select a US state, a US territory, or a Canadian province. Visitors are redirected to the websites of those state, territorial, or provincial psychological organizations that have their own searchable provider databases.

 

Remind students that one way they may be able to help a loved one is by, with the loved one’s permission, doing the legwork to find a practicing psychologist for them. When you’re struggling and everything feels impossible, finding a practicing psychologist could feel like an impossible task (Murphy, 2018).

 

Crisis Text Line

 

For immediate help, for themselves or a loved one, students can contact the Crisis Text Line.

 

In the US, text HOME to 741741.

In Canada, text HOME to 686868.

 

The Crisis Text Line is coming to the UK in 2018.

 

For students who are looking for volunteer opportunities in the US, Canada, or the UK, the Crisis Text Line is looking for volunteer counselors. Each volunteer receives a “30-hour web-based training” and is asked to commit to four hours of service each week with an overall 200-hour commitment.  

 

Also consider sharing local crisis hotline numbers with your students. A valuable service-learning-type project for your students would be advertising on your campus the Crisis Text Line as well as local hotlines or other national hotlines. 

Money matters. For entering U.S. collegians, the number one life goal—surpassing “helping others in difficulty,” “raising a family,” and 17 other aspirations—is “being very well off financially.” In the most recent UCLA “American Freshman” survey, 82 percent rated being very well off as “essential” or “very important.” Think of it as today’s American dream: life, liberty, and the purchase of happiness.

 

For human flourishing, fiscal fitness indeed matters . . . up to a point. In repeated surveys across nations, a middle-class income—and being able to control one’s life—beats being poor. Moreover, people in developed nations tend to be happier and more satisfied than those in the poorest of nations.

 

Beyond the middle-class level, we seem to have an income “satiation point,” at which the income-happiness correlation tapers off and happiness no longer increases. For individuals in poor countries, that point is close to $40,000; for those in rich countries, about $90,000, reports a new analysis of 1.7 million Gallup interviews by Andrew Jebb and colleagues.

 

And consider: The average U.S.  per-person disposable income, adjusted for inflation, has happily tripled over the last 60 years, enabling most Americans to enjoy today’s wonderments, from home air conditioning to wintertime fresh fruit to smart phones. “Happily,” because few of us wish to return to yesteryear. Yet not that happily, because psychological well-being has not floated upward with the rising economic tide. The number of “very happy” adults has remained at 3 in 10, and depression has been on the rise.

 

What triggers the diminishing psychological payoff from excess income? Two factors:

  • Our human capacity for adaptation: Continual pleasures subside.
  • Our tendency to assess our own circumstances by “social comparison” with those around us—and more often those above us. People with a $40,000 income tend to think $80,000 would enable them to feel wealthy—whereas those at $80,000 say they would need substantially more. Become a millionaire and move to a rich neighborhood, you still may not feel rich. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

 

The outer limit of the wealth–well-being relationship also appears in two new surveys (by Grant Donnelly, Tianyl Zheng, Emily Haisley, and Michael Norton) of an international bank’s high net-worth clients. As you can see in figures I created from their data, having $2 million and $10 million are about the same, psychologically speaking.

 

If wealth increases well-being only up to a point—and much evidence indicates that is so—and if extreme inequality is socially toxic (great inequality in a community or country predicts lower life quality and more social pathology), then could societies increase human flourishing with economic and tax policies that spread wealth?

 

Let’s make this personal: If earning, accumulating, and spending money increases our happiness only to a satiation point, then why do we spend our money for (quoting the prophet Isaiah) “that which is not bread” and our “labor for that which does not satisfy?” Quite apart from moral considerations, what’s to be lost by sharing our wealth above the income-happiness satiation point?

 

And if one is blessed with wealth, what’s to be gained by showering inherited wealth, above the satiation point, on our children? (Consider, too, another Donnelly and colleagues finding: Inherited wealth entails less happiness than earned wealth.)

 

Ergo, whether we and our children drive BMWs or Honda Fits, swim in our backyard pool or at the local Y, eat filet mignon or fish filet sandwiches, hardly matters. That fact of life, combined with the more important facts of the world’s needs, makes the case for philanthropy.

Change is hard. Once you’ve learned to do something one way, it can be very difficult to do it a different way, even when you know that that different way would be better. Heck, we all know we should exercise more, eat better, and sleep – both more and better. Physicians used to think that all they had to do was educate their patients, and their patients would make those changes. People, of course, are not that simple. That’s one reason that integrated healthcare is becoming popular. Having a psychologist on the team – someone who understands behavior – can make a big difference in someone’s health outcomes.

 

We know what good study strategies look like (Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan, & Willingham, 2013). We share these with our students, our students think they are all good ideas, but how many students actually make the change? It’s a risky move to give up a less-than-ideal study strategy that will probably get a C for a never-tried study strategy.

 

We’re psychologists. We know that an effective route to behavioral change is through baby steps, foot-in-the-door, if you will.

 

Toshiya Miyatsu and colleagues (2018) have identified some of the most popular study strategies that students are already using and have made recommendations of how students can tweak them to use them more effectively. Below is a summary of their recommendations.

 

Rereading, used by 78% of students in the studies identified by Miyatsu, et al. (2018).

 

Because rereading is usually passive, we expect poorer learning outcomes. If students are going to reread, they should space out their rereading (spacing effect), and before rereading they should try to recall all that they remember from their last reading session (retrieval practice).

 

Underlining and highlighting, used by 53% of students in the studies identified by Miyatsu, et al. (2018).

 

This strategy can also be passive. Lesser-skilled readers have a hard time identifying what is important in a text resulting in too much or too little underlined or highlighted. Teaching students how to identify the important information in a text makes a difference. Students should wait until their second reading to underline/highlight. After reading a chapter or a section of a chapter, it’s easier to identify the important content (elaborative processing). Also, teach students how to see the structure of the text (see outlining next).

 

Outlining, used by 23% of students in the studies identified by Miyatsu, et al. (2018).

 

If instructors give the outline or give a partial outline, students do better. If the students create the outline, they don’t do better as compared to other study techniques, unless they received training in how to outline. Seeing the structure of the text helps readers find the key points. After having the outline, students can use it for it retrieval practice, e.g., “What were the supporting ideas for point B in this section?” Remind students to look at the outline at the beginning of the chapters of their textbooks. Taking 30 seconds to read through it will give the students a framework that will help them structure what they will be reading.

 

Note-taking, used by 30% of students in the studies identified by Miyatsu, et al. (2018).

 

The big questions about note-taking are how students take notes and whether they are permitted to review their notes before recall. If notes are hand-written, students tend to condense what they are learning and convert it into their own words – fewer notes, but more elaborative processing. If notes are typed on a computer, students tend to transcribe – more notes, but less elaborative processing. On recall tests where the notes are not reviewed, the hand-written note-takers out-perform the typists. If the note-takers are permitted to review their notes prior to recall, the typists may or may not out-perform the hand-writers. Because the research in this area is still pretty scant, the best recommendation to students is, “Review your notes.”

 

Flash cards, used by 55% of students in the studies identified by Miyatsu, et al. (2018).

 

Flash cards are all about retrieval practice. Students should continue to practice recalling items they’ve already learned. Flash card sessions should be spaced out (spacing effect).

 

Message to students: You’ve been using “My Study Strategies v. 1.0.” You don’t have to throw those out if you’re not ready to, but it is time to use your study strategies more effectively. Up your game to “My Study Strategies v. 2.0” by heeding these recommendations.

 

References

 

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Supplement, 14(1), 4–58. https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100612453266

 

Miyatsu, T., Nguyen, K., & McDaniel, M. A. (2018). Five popular study strategies: Their pitfalls and optimal implementations. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(3), 390–407. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691617710510

“The most famous psychological studies are often wrong, fraudulent, or outdated.” With this headline, Vox joins critics that question the reproducibility and integrity of psychological science’s findings.

 

Are many psychology findings indeed untrustworthy? In 2008, news from a mass replication study—that only 36 percent of nearly 100 psychological science studies successfully reproduced the previous findings—rattled our field. Some challenged the conclusion: “Our analysis completely invalidates the pessimistic conclusions that many have drawn from this landmark study,” said Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert.

 

For introductory psychology teachers, those supposed failures to replicate need not have been a huge concern. Introductory psych textbooks focus on major, well-established findings and ideas. (For example, only one of the 60+ unreplicated studies were among the 5,174 references in my text at the time, necessitating a deletion of only one-half sentence in its next edition.)

 

But here are more recent criticisms—about six famous and favorite studies:

  • Philip Zimbardo stage-managed the Stanford prison study to get his wished-for results, and those who volunteer for such an experiment may be atypically aggressive and authoritarian (see here and here). Moreover, as Stephen Reicher and Alex Haslaam showed, when they recreated a prison experiment with the BBC (albeit as reality TV rather than a replication), groups don’t necessarily corrupt—people can collectively choose to behave in varied ways. For such reasons, the Stanford prison study may in the future disappear from more intro psych texts. But for the present, some teachers still use this study as a vivid illustration of the potential corrupting power of evil situations. (Moreover, Philip Zimbardo and colleagues have released responses here.)
  • Muzafer Sherif similarly managed his famed boys’ camp study of conflict and cooperation to produce desired results (see here). Yet my friend Stephen Reicher, whom I met over coffee in St. Andrews two weeks ago, still considers the Sherif study a demonstration (even if somewhat staged) of the toxicity of competition and the benefits of cooperation.
  • The facial-feedback effect—the tendency of facial muscles to trigger associated feelings—doesn’t replicate (see here). The failure to reproduce that favorite study (which my students and I have experienced by holding a pencil with our teeth vs. our pouting lips) wiped a smile off my face. But then the original researcher, Fritz Strack, pointed us to 20 successful replications. And a new study sleuths a crucial difference (self-awareness effects due to camera proximity) between the studies that do and don’t reproduce the facial feedback phenomenon. Even without a pencil in my mouth, I am smiling again.
  • The ego-depletion effect—that self-control is like a muscle (weakened by exercise, replenished with rest, and strengthened with exercise)—also failed a multi-lab replication (here). But a massive new 40-lab study, with data analyzed by an independent consultant—“innovative, rigorous” science, said Center for Open Science founder Brian Nosek—did show evidence of a small depletion phenomenon.
  • Kitty Genovese wasn’t actually murdered in front of 38 apartment bystanders who were all nonresponsive (see here). Indeed. Nevertheless, the unresponsive bystander narrative—initiated by police after the Genovese murder—inspired important experiments on the conditions under which bystanders will notice and respond in crisis situations.
  • Mischel’s marshmallow study (children who delay gratification enjoy future success) got roasted by a big new failure to replicate. As I explain in last week’s www.TalkPsych.com essay, the researchers did find an association between 4½-year-olds’ ability to delay gratification and later school achievement, but it was modest and related to other factors. The take-home lesson: Psychological research does not show that a single act of behavior is a reliable predictor of a child’s life trajectory. Yet life success does grow from impulse restraint. When deciding whether to study or party, whether to spend now or save for retirement, foregoing small pleasures can lead to bigger rewards later.

 

One positive outcome of these challenges to psychological science has been new scientific reporting standards that enable replications, along with the establishment of the Center for Open Science that aims to increase scientific openness, integrity, and reproducibility. (I was pleased recently to recommend to fellow Templeton World Charity Foundation trustees a multi-million dollar grant which will support the Center’s mission.)

 

The big picture: Regardless of findings, research replications are part of good science. Science, like mountain climbing, is a process that leads us upward, but with times of feeling like we have lost ground along the way. Any single study provides initial evidence, which can inspire follow-up research that enables us to refine a phenomenon and to understand its scope. Through replication—by winnowing the chaff and refining the wheat—psychological science marches forward.

For the second Intro Psych class session of the term, I wear this shirt to class: “Procrastinate today! Future you won’t mind the extra work.” I use that as a launch point for a discussion on why students procrastinate doing course work and strategies for how to avoid procrastination.

 

In small groups, have students start by sharing the reasons they – or people they know – procrastinate. After discussion dies down, ask each group to name one reason they identified; they cannot repeat a reason previously given by another group. Write the reasons on the board as you go. Talk a bit about the psychology behind each reason to provide a little taste of what students will be learning in the course.

 

Here are some common reasons my students give for procrastinating.

 

  •  “I have plenty of time to do it.” The planning fallacy tells us that projects frequently take longer to do than we think they will.
  • “Going out with my friends is more fun than reading my textbook.” There’s no better time to talk about the power of immediate, positive reinforcement.
  • “My friends and family don’t understand how much work college is. They pressure me to spend time with them that I really should be using to study.” This is commonly mentioned by first generation college students whose friends and family often have no experience with college.  I talk about the concept of negative reinforcement – it’s easier to give in to them just to get them off your back – but the first week of class is not the best time to introduce the term “negative reinforcement.” Or if you’d rather talk about social pressure here, that’s a perfectly fine angle, too.
  • “I don’t really understand the assignment, so I play a game on my phone instead.” Emotion-focused coping addresses how we feel. Another round of negative reinforcement – playing the game temporarily takes away the anxiety of not understanding.
  • “I keep waiting until I feel like doing it.” If you’re not excited about doing it, you may never “feel like” it.

 

Return students to their groups to discuss strategies for overcoming procrastination. Again, groups report out.

 

Here are some common anti-procrastination strategies students identify.

 

  • “I use a calendar to schedule when I’m going to study.” Setting aside time in a calendar can reduce stress. Instead of periodically panicking throughout the week about having to study, you know exactly when you are going to do it. [Bonus tip 1: put away the electronics. Since task-switching eats up a lot of time, don’t let text messages and social media take away your dedicated study time.] [Bonus tip 2: it’s okay to commit to small chunks of time, like 20 minutes. Think Pomodoro technique.]
  • “I use going out with friends as a reward for doing the studying I promised myself I was going to do.” Back to positive reinforcement.
  • When I don’t understand an assignment, I email the professor.” Problem-focused coping addresses the problem head-on. It goes a long way toward making progress on an assignment.

 

A strategy that few groups identify, but I always mention is eliminating barriers.

 

If you want to reduce a behavior, put up more barriers between you and the behavior. Want to eat less candy, get the candy off your table. You can eat as much candy as you want, but it you have to walk down to the corner store to get it, you’re going to eat less of it.

 

If you want to increase a behavior, remove the barriers between you and the behavior. If you’re going to get to the gym tomorrow morning, pack your bag the night before. It’s easier to go if all you have to do is grab your bag and walk out the door. In the case of writing a paper, if you’re not ready to commit to doing it just yet, at least do the prep work. Wherever you’re going to write, open your book to the chapter you’re going to reference. Print the articles you’re going to use, and set them out. Open a blank document, and type the topic (if you don’t have the title yet), your name, the course it’s for, and the date. If you have ideas for the sections of the paper, type those out. And now you get to leave.  Go for a walk. Watch a TV show. When you come back, it will be easier to get started writing since all you have to do is sit down and start typing.

 

My students really take the eliminating barriers tip to heart. At the end of the term, it’s not unusual for students to say that they started using it, and it made a real difference in how much they were procrastinating. In a recent class, one student said he had just used this that morning. He needed to practice his instrument, but he didn’t feel like it. He got his instrument out, set up his music stand, pulled out the music he was going to practice and put it on the stand. And then he left to take a walk with friends. When he came back, he just picked up his instrument and practiced.

 

The biggest benefit of having this discussion about procrastination and how to avoid it may be normalizing the experience. Students get to see that they are not alone in this struggle. If other students who are just like themselves have found successful coping strategies, so can they.

At the end of each term, I ask my students to reflect on what they’ve learned in the course. Officially, this is in the form of a top 10 list. Each student is asked to generate a rank-ordered list of the 10 most important things they learned in the course with a description of each and an explanation of why each thing made their list. I leave it that wide open on purpose. Most students choose to write about specific concepts. Some choose more broad theories. Others take an entire category, like “tips for a leading a happier life.” How they want to define “important” is just as wide open. It could be important to them personally, important for people in general to know, or important for all of humanity to know about. All term I ask my students to demonstrate the knowledge that I think is important. For this final assignment, I give them an opportunity to tell me what they learned.

 

During our last class session, I ask each student to tell the class what they chose for the top of their list and why. Next, I ask the other students if anyone else had that in their list. For those who do, I ask why they found it important. I make sure that we hear everyone’s number one choice.

 

This is also, frankly, a fun way for everyone to review what they learned in the course. Not only do they reflect when they work on the assignment, but they also reflect as other students share their list items in class. It’s not unusual to hear a student say, “Ooo…, I wish I would have put THAT one on my list.”

 

I also get one more opportunity to share other examples, connect concepts to current events, or talk about concepts we didn’t cover in the course.

 

Here is a partial list of what my Intro Psych students this term found important and a paraphrase as to why.

 

  • Correlations. “You hear news stories that report that one variable causes another, but it looks like they’re talking about a correlation, and you think, 'but does it, though?’”
  • Independent and dependent variables. “Without experiments, there would be no science to give us everything we learned in this course.”
  • Hindsight bias. “I’m now more patient when I’m teaching someone something that I already know. Because it’s obvious now to me doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy or obvious to them.”
  • Epigenetics. “If knowledge of epigenetics can help us purposefully turn on and off genes, who know what we can cure.”
  • Sympathetic nervous system. “I was taking a test, and I was starting to feel nervous. I felt my pulse, and it was definitely up. I thought, ‘Yep, that’s my sympathetic nervous system at work, but that doesn’t mean I’m anxious.’”
  • Excessive optimism. “I’m tired of the excessive optimists in my life who can’t see the realistic threats.”
  • Scapegoat theory. “It’s all over the news.”
  • Split-brain, cognitive dissonance, perception, color processing, implicit bias. “There is so much that our brains are doing without our conscious awareness.”
  • Operant conditioning. “It’s made me more aware of how I can reinforce my own behavior and how I’m unintentionally reinforcing bad behavior in others.”
  • Parenting styles. “I have a child, and I want to do what’s best for her.”
  • Stress. “Now I understand how stress can cause my chronic health condition to flare up.” “I’m using some of the coping strategies we learned about, and it’s made a difference in how much stress I’m feeling.”
  • Happiness. “When I feel down, I go to the 10 tips our textbook lists that can help boost happiness. I pick one and do it. And I do feel better.”
  • Effects of sleep loss. “I had no idea how much my lack of sleep was affecting me. I started sleeping more, and I feel so much better.”
  • Schemas. “I’m now aware of how much I rely on these every day. And I think about how my schemas can differ from someone else’s.”
  • Fundamental attribution error. “First impressions really are powerful. I’m trying to be more aware of the first impressions I give people so they think better of me from the start, and I’m trying to not let first impressions of other people affect my view of them so much.
  • Stereotypes.“I’m more aware of my own stereotypes and how my friends and family show their stereotypes through what they say and what they do.”
  • Psychological disorders. “I have more empathy for my friends and family who have a disorder.” “I have a deeper understanding of my own disorder.”

 

I tell my students at the beginning of the course that this will not be a course where they will just learn stuff for a test and then forget about it all two weeks after this course is over. Instead, I tell them, this will be a course where they will learn stuff they will use for the rest of their lives.

 

As we go through the course, students have opportunities to discuss and share their own experiences with the material. What I like about this end-of-term assignment, though, is that students have often had a few weeks or more to reflect on what they’ve learned. This may be the content that will really stick with them long after the course is over.

 

Hearing what students have to say on this last day of class always makes it easier for me to start Intro Psych the next term. What will these students put in their top 10 lists?

David Myers

Marshmallow Study Roasted?

Posted by David Myers Expert Jun 11, 2018

While on break in St. Andrews (Scotland) last week, I enjoyed a dinner conversation with a celebrated M.I.T. developmental psychologist and a similarly brilliant University of St. Andrews researcher. Among our dinner topics was an impressive recent conceptual replication of Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow test.

 

Mischel and his colleagues, as you may recall, gave 4-year-olds a choice between one marshmallow now or two marshmallows later. Their long-term studies showed that those with the willpower to delay gratification as preschoolers went on as adults to have higher college-completion rates and incomes and fewer addiction problems. This gem in psychology’s lore—that a preschooler’s single behavioral act could predict that child’s life trajectory—is a favorite study for thousands of psychology instructors, and has made it into popular culture—from Sesame’s Street’s Cookie Monster to the conversation of Barack Obama.

 

In their recent replication of Mischel’s study, Tyler Watts, Greg Duncan, and Hoanan Quen followed a much larger and more diverse sample: 918 children who, at age 4½, took the marshmallow test as part of a 10-site National Institute of Child Health and Human Development child study. Observing the children’s school achievement at age 15, the researchers noted a modest, statistically significant association “between early delay ability and later achievement.” But after controlling for other factors, such as the child’s intelligence, family social status, and education, the effect shriveled.

 

“Of course!” said one of my dinner companions. Family socioeconomic status (SES) matters. It influences both children’s willingness to await the second marshmallow, and also academic and economic success. As other evidence indicates—see here and here—it is reasonable for children in poverty to seize what’s available now and to not trust promises of greater future rewards.

 

But my other dinner companion and I posited another factor: Any predictive variable can have its juice drained when we control for myriad other variables. Perhaps part of a child’s ability to delay gratification is intelligence (and the ability to contemplate the future) and experience. If so, controlling for such variables and then asking what’s the residual effect of delay of gratification, per se, is like asking what’s the real effect of a hurricane, per se, after controlling for barometric pressure, wind speed, and storm surge. A hurricane is a package variable, as is delay of gratification.

 

I put that argument to Tyler Watts, who offered this response:

If the ability to delay gratification is really a symptom of other characteristics in a child's life, then interventions designed to change only delay of gratification (but not those other characteristics) will probably not have the effect that you would expect based on the correlation Mischel and Shoda reported. So, if it’s the case that in order to generate the long-term effects reported in Mischel's work, interventions would have to target some combination of SES, parenting, and general cognitive ability, then it seems important to recognize that.  

 

This major new study prompts our reassessing the presumed predictive power of the famed marshmallow test. Given what we’ve known about how hard it is to predict to or from single acts of behavior—or single items on a test or questionnaire—we should not have been surprised. And we should not exaggerate the importance of teaching delay of gratification, apart from other important predictors of life success.

 

But the new findings do not undermine a deeper lesson: Part of moral development and life success is gaining self-discipline in restraining one’s impulses. To be mature is to forego small pleasures now to earn bigger rewards later. Thus, teacher ratings of children’s self-control (across countless observations) do predict future employment. And parent ratings of young children’s self-regulation predict future social success. Self-control matters.

Emmanuel Ax, professional pianist, was recently interviewed about “ways to make practicing an instrument more fun and productive.” Ax devotes four hours each day to practice. As you might expect, he reports that sometimes “it’s kind of a slog.” I love that this article normalizes hard work. Even people at the top of their game have to continue to work – even when they’d rather be doing something else.

 

Emmanuel Ax performing

 

As I read the interview, I found a lot of parallels with studying. If you talk about studying in your courses, consider asking your students to read the article, jot down a few notes on how his advice could apply to studying, and then get into small groups to share ideas. Finally, go through each section of the article and ask volunteers to share what parallels with studying students drew.

 

Here are some parallels I found.

 

“Listen to great performances” – listen to professors and read material that make the concepts clear.

 

“Get a partner” – study buddies can help you make connections that you weren’t seeing yourself.

 

“Try another instrument” – mix up your studying. Study psychology for a while and then switch to chemistry. Think interleaving.

 

“Experiment” – try different study techniques. If you haven’t tried creating your own concrete examples or elaborating on concepts, or drawing a diagram that shows how concepts relate, try those techniques.

 

“Come back to old pieces” – practice retrieving content you learned from earlier in the course. Not only does it refresh your memory, but you may see it differently this time, especially now that you’ve learned new stuff that may relate.

 

“Use an app” – put your notes in a form, like Google Drive or OneNote, that allow you to have access to your notes wherever you are.

 

“Play Bach” – challenge yourself. Don’t settle for studying the easy stuff. Studying difficult material will stretch you, and isn’t that what education is about?