Angela Duckworth has advanced our understanding of how self-control and grit impact success more than most.
When she applied to the PhD program at Penn, she wrote that her experiences working in schools left her with an unconventional view of school reform. “The problem, I think, is not only the schools but also the students themselves,” she wrote. “Here’s why: learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying— but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. … To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.”
She was accepted. At Penn she began to collaborate with Walter Mischel, a professor of psychology at Columbia University who is famous for his study known as the marshmallow test.
Paul Tough picks up this story in his excellent book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.
The Marshmallow Test
In the late 1960s, Mischel, then a professor at Stanford University, developed an ingenious experiment to test the willpower of four-year-olds. At a nursery school on the Stanford campus, a researcher brought each child into a small room, sat him at a desk, and offered him a treat, such as a marshmallow. On the desk was a bell. The experimenter announced that she was going to leave the room, and the child could eat the marshmallow when she returned. Then she gave him a choice: If he wanted to eat the marshmallow, he needed only to ring the bell; the experimenter would return, and he could have it. But if he waited until the experimenter returned on her own, he would get two marshmallows.
Mischel intended the experiment as a study of the different techniques that children used to resist temptation. But it took on a new dimension more than a decade later when Mischel began to check up on the children in the experiment to see if their ability to delay gratification had predicted any academic or other outcomes. Starting in 1981, he tracked down as many students as he could find, and he continued to follow them for years afterward. The correlations between the children’s marshmallow wait times and their later academic success turned out to be striking. Children who had been able to wait for fifteen minutes for their treat had SAT scores that were, on average, 210 points higher than those of children who had rung the bell after thirty seconds.
Duckworth was intrigued by Mischel’s results but she was more interested in answering the question behind Mischel's original premise: If you want to maximize your self-control, which tricks and strategies are most effective? And, if you can determine those things, can they be taught?
Mischel’s experiment had suggested some interesting answers. For instance, both psychoanalytic theory and behavioral theory had held that the best way for a child to motivate himself to wait and get two marshmallows was for him to keep the reward at the center of his attention, to reinforce how delicious those two marshmallows would be when he finally got to eat them. But in fact, the opposite turned out to be true: when the marshmallows were hidden from view, children were able to delay much longer than when the marshmallows were right in front of them. The children who did best at the delay test created their own distractions. Some talked or sang to themselves while they waited for the experimenter to return; some looked away from the treat or put their hands over their eyes. One young master of self-control actually managed to take a nap.
Mischel found that children were able to delay more effectively if they were given simple prompts to encourage them to think differently about the marshmallow. The more abstractly they thought about the treat, the longer they were able to delay. When children were invited to think of the marshmallow as a puffy round cloud instead of a marshmallow, they were able to delay about seven minutes longer. Some children were encouraged to look at a picture of a marshmallow instead of the real marshmallow. They were able to wait longer too. Others looked at the real marshmallows but were told to “put a frame around them in your head, just like a real picture.” Those children were able to wait almost eighteen minutes.
Adapting Mischel's findings to schools proved difficult.
The problem with self-control techniques like the ones that the most disciplined marshmallow resisters employed is that they work only when a child knows what he or she wants. The long-term goals Duckworth hoped kids would aspire to were less tangible and immediate and attractive than two marshmallows after twenty minutes. So how do you help children acquire the focus and persistence they will need for longer-term, more abstract goals: passing a test or graduating from high school or succeeding in college?
Duckworth finds it useful to divide the mechanics of achievement into two separate dimensions: motivation and volition. Each one, she says, is necessary to achieve long-term goals, but neither is sufficient alone. Most of us are familiar with the experience of possessing motivation but lacking volition: You can be extremely motivated to lose weight, for example, but unless you have the volition— the willpower, the self-control— to put down the cherry Danish and pick up the free weights, you’re not going to succeed. If a child is highly motivated, the self-control techniques and exercises Duckworth tried to teach those fifth-grade students might be very helpful. But what if students just aren’t motivated to achieve the goals their teachers or parents want them to achieve? Then, Duckworth acknowledges, all the self-control tricks in the world aren’t going to help.
Motivation is tricky. In Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner tell the story of researchers in the 1970s who conducted an experiment to see if giving money to people giving blood would increase blood donations. It had the opposite impact, fewer people gave blood, not more.
This is the same as the daycare study, where in an effort to stop parents from picking up their kids late the daycare took the seemingly simple and rational step of instituting a fine for late pickups. This too had the opposite impact, more parents were late.
Material incentives do not often work the way we think they should. The problem with motivating people is we really don't know how. Different people respond to different things.
So what do you call … (people) who exerted themselves whether or not there was a potential reward? Well, here’s the technical term that personality psychologists use: conscientiousness. Over the past couple of decades, a consensus has emerged among personality psychologists that the most effective way to analyze the human personality is to consider it along five dimensions, known as the Big Five: agreeableness, extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experience, and conscientiousness.
Conscientiousness predicts outcomes …
People high in conscientiousness get better grades in high school and college; they commit fewer crimes; and they stay married longer. They live longer— and not just because they smoke and drink less. They have fewer strokes, lower blood pressure, and a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. “It would actually be nice if there were some negative things that went along with conscientiousness,” (Brent) Roberts told me. “But at this point it’s emerging as one of the primary dimensions of successful functioning across the lifespan. It really goes cradle to grave in terms of how well people do.”
Even self-control has its limitations.
It may be very useful for predicting who will graduate from high school, but, (Duckworth) says, it’s not as relevant when it comes to identifying who might invent a new technology or direct an award-winning movie. … Duckworth began to sense that self -control wasn’t precisely the driver of success that she was looking for. She considered her own career. She was, by objective measures, very intelligent, and she recognized that she had high levels of self-discipline: she got up early; she worked hard; she met deadlines; she made it to the gym on a regular basis . And though she was certainly successful— very few doctoral students have their first-year theses published in a prestigious journal like Psychological Science—her peripatetic early career was much less directed than that of, say, David Levin, who had found his life’s calling at twenty-two and had persisted at the same goal ever since, overcoming many obstacles and creating, with Michael Feinberg, a successful network of charter schools educating thousands of students. Duckworth felt that Levin, who was about her age, possessed some trait that she did not: a passionate commitment to a single mission and an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission. She decided she needed to name this quality, and she chose the word grit.
Grit is what helps us attain long-term results on abstract goals. It's what keeps us going. Duckworth teamed up with Chris Peterson, the co-author of Character Strengths and Virtues, and developed a test to measure grit. Duckworth calls it a Grit Scale — a deceptively simple test, with only 12 questions to which respondents self-evaluate, including “I am a hard worker;” “New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones;” and “I finish whatever I begin.
For each statement, respondents score themselves on a five-point scale, ranging from 5, “very much like me,” to 1, “not like me at all.” The test takes about three minutes to complete, and it relies entirely on self-report — and yet when Duckworth and Peterson took it out into the field, they found it was remarkably predictive of success. Grit, Duckworth discovered, is only faintly related to IQ — there are smart gritty people and dumb gritty people — but at Penn, high grit scores allowed students who had entered college with relatively low college-board scores to nonetheless achieve high GPAs. At the National Spelling Bee, Duckworth found that children with high grit scores were more likely to survive to the later rounds. Most remarkable, Duckworth and Peterson gave their grit test to more than twelve hundred freshman cadets as they entered the military academy at West Point and embarked on the grueling summer training course known as Beast Barracks. The military has developed its own complex evaluation, called the whole candidate score, to judge incoming cadets and predict which of them will survive the demands of West Point; it includes academic grades, a gauge of physical fitness, and a leadership potential score. But the more accurate predictor of which cadets persisted in Beast Barracks and which ones dropped out turned out to be Duckworth’s simple little twelve-item grit questionnaire.
Still curious? Pair with: Angela Duckworth on how to develop grit.
How Children Succeed contains more on Duckworth's impact as well as a fascinating look at the efforts to quantify character.