You just woke up, it’s a chilly Saturday morning, you have nothing to do, nowhere to be and there’s a gentle rainy mist outside, your significant other says, “I’ll get you a coffee, but you have to wait two hours while I drive to the best coffee shop in the next town.” How many of us will wait for that primo java and who will take the leftover instant package collecting dust in the back of the cabinet? Your answer might be able to provide answers about your income level, emotional stability and chances for obesity.
Walter Mischel made a landmark study on self-control at Stanford University in the 70’s. He put a marshmallow (or whatever sweet treat the subjects chose as their favorite) in front of a four-year-old child and said, “You can eat this one now, OR wait for me to walk down the hall and get another one and then you can eat BOTH!” Two-thirds of children didn’t make the fifteen-minute wait, leaving one-third to ponder over the shape, smell, texture and of course taste of that perfect white blob of sugar.
Mischel followed up with those kids as they grew into teenagers and adults. The teenagers who were able to delay gratification by waiting to get the reward of an extra treat were more successful students (higher SAT scores) and better able to control emotions and cognitive functions. Concurrently, as adults, those willpower-fueled toddlers coped better with stress, were less likely to be obese, have better relationships and pursued goals more effectively.
What does the experiment show? Self-control is important. That trait of delayed gratification coupled with perseverance makes GRIT—that fancy new buzz word trademarked by Angela Duckworth from The University of Pennsylvania. She has shown in trials, that high-efficiency individuals like Ivy Leaguers, West Point cadets and Spelling Bee champions all possess self-reported grit—the ability to follow goals to the end.
However, Mischel’s experiment studied a nursery school on Stanford’s campus, and the above high-achievers would generally/stereotypically come from stable home environments. New research shows grit is extremely important, but possibly not as important as that stable environment from which to grow one’s grit.
Wealth inequality is the new predictor of educational success. Scores between races have begun narrowing, while scores between rich and poor have been widening. A Washington Post article took the grit questionnaire and changed it to relate to students who might be struggling outside of the classroom. It asked about food at home, habitual hunger, ability to visit a doctor and if you ever hear parents discussing not having enough money for rent.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a pyramid of human psychological and physical prerequisites essential to attaining self-actualization, i.e. using grit to realize goals. Can a student be expected to persevere through a geometry lesson when that right triangle just looks like a sandwich? Can a student explain World War 2 if his home is a constant battle of avoiding verbal, sexual or physical abuse?
Poorer children do worse on the marshmallow test because they have been trained through poverty to take the immediate reward rather than wait or work harder for the long-term gain. That may have implications for how the delayed gratification practice of studying to get into college so that you can get a better job is viewed. In the past 30 years, worldwide poverty (living on less than 2$ a day) has declined by about 60%. Two dollars a day in purchasing parity would presumably go a lot further in rural India than in rural Indiana.
Working a minimum wage part-time job with government assistance gives you poverty level income even as a single person. Get a small pay bump, get pushed up to full-time, lose the government assistance and you’re back to where you were, except now working a full eight hours to still be worried if you’ll have rent money.
That stress will manifest into illnesses you cannot afford or trickle down to the children for whom you cannot provide. All the growing information about genetics and intrinsic intelligence cannot overcome a life lived in poverty. Where does grit fit there?
How does a truck driver who loses his job to autonomy use grit? How does a salesclerk who loses her job to Amazon use perseverance? How do we teach hard work to kids who might not be able to find a job in the future? When the future involves such moral issues as A.I. and genetic engineering, or losses of entire industries to automation or climate change induced mass migration, it’s hard to focus on individual actions.
But, human ingenuity is our best chance. The “crisitunity” of modernity is that those issues might make things better. Our future grit may be linked to purely leisure or satisfying activities. Maybe living like the Jetsons with some type of Universal Basic Income will give everyone a chance to live their lives, full of contented grit, expressing their own innate skills. Imagine a world of artists, craftsmen, and thinkers who have all their basic needs met and striving daily toward a fuller self-actualized identity.
***I wrote this a few weeks ago, forgot about it and then the college bribery scandal broke. Rich people teaching their kids that grit is for the poor. They have to study; we can afford to cheat. It’s a pretty disgusting story, but it’s well known how the super-wealthy donate big money to universities to ensure admission for their progeny, e.g. Jared Kushner. That’s not illegal, just brash, blatant capitalism. This new story is pure deception. Photoshopping heads, phony athletes and SAT cheating, that’s just boring. At least Harvard got a few million out of the Kushner deal. USC got Aunt Becky’s (Lori Loughlin) Instagram “influencer” daughters, not the two rowing phenoms they were promised. Imagine those unfortunate rowers waiting for their new additions to the team. Instead, they got nail polishing tips and a hair curling tutorial.
It wasn’t surprising that rich people broke the law to get what they want. What will be a surprise is if they get punished for it.