A squishy skill worth celebrating

Perhaps the only confection to make it from campfire to laboratory, the marshmallow is an intellectual giant of the candy aisle. Stanford psychology professor Walter Mischel has been using this squishy sugary treat to study the correlation between delayed gratification and future success. It seems that young children who can resist taking a bite for 15 minutes have, on average, SAT scores 210 points higher than their contemporaries with less willpower (holding out only 30 seconds). Moreover, "low-delayers" were more likely to have behavioral problems, difficulty maintaining friendships, and trouble dealing with stress than "high-delayers." It was only when Mischel caught up with the children as high school students--and periodically until their late 30s--that he realized the underlying ability: metacognition, the act of thinking about thinking. Proficiency in this somewhat esoteric skill helps us to overcome other shortcomings; in this case, a child with high levels of metacognition has the self-control to skip his favorite TV program in favor of completing his homework, or distract himself during the so-called "marshmallow test" by looking in the other direction or singing songs. But Mischel isn't the only one to recognize the importance of this skill; Dave Levin, founder of KIPP and superintendent that organization's schools in New York City, wants to know if it can be taught. He's collaborating with Mischel, hoping to incorporate the teaching of metacognition into KIPP's character-development curriculum. We're intrigued.

"Don't! The secret of self-control," by Jonah Lehrer, The New Yorker, May 18, 2009