The predictive power of marshmallows

The Student Achievement Program Learning Education StudyingHave you ever read about the marshmallow test? In recent years I have found it quoted or recited in several books and articles on memory, behavior and personal leadership. The main idea? That children, who at a young age are able to refrain from eating a marshmallow for fifteen minutes knowing that there is a reward of an additional marshmallow at the end of their wait, are more successful by a variety of measures later on in life.

Having spent the better part of a decade observing successful students, I am convinced that in the academic domain, your ability to control impulsive behavior, such as eating the marshmallow, and focussing on the long term horizon rather then the pleasures of the here-and-now, is a key factor in performance improvement.

Successful students do not show this impulse control constantly (phew, you are human!), you show it more frequently than less successful students and, probably, you show it in moments of decision which influence events such as exams.

Yes, like the decision to go out for a beer or spend the evening preparing for a class the next day. Going out for the beer is the first marshmallow.

You know, as steady reader of this blog, that in my mind students are not so different in their intellectual ability. Given the exceptions at both ends of the spectrum, on average students who make it to university or college have the intellectual ability to be successful in their studies.

Yet it seems that the behavior of foregoing cups of coffee, shopping sprees, heat of the moment escapades and parties is crucial to the performance of who we consider to be top students. Actually, you are simply better at staying focused. At setting priorities. At delaying gratification. At controlling your impulses.

Yes, I just implicitly referred to at least a dozen articles and books discussing the same thing in different words. I think these are all elements related to impulse control.

Why is this so fascinating? Well, your ability to managing the trade off between feeling good in the moment or doing well in the long run is seemingly influences your future in an order of magnitude you do not (want to) comprehend.

Rationally you know what is best for you. Yet something clouds your judgement. Probably your emotions. When you observe the language you use for certain things, you may catch yourself confirming what I just said. You feel a need to do something. You know it is the right thing to do. Your language implies which part of the brain are in conflict here. The bad news? Your emotions are relentlessly swift and overwhelmingly powerful influencers. The good news? Your reason is very capable of learning to reign in your emotions.

In fact, you can learn to do better at the marshmallow test. But think carefully.  If you  think that by not eating the marshmallow within fifteen minutes, you suddenly have impulse control, you are mistaken. In that moment perhaps, but what about when it comes to something truly important to you, such as  deciding to putt in that extra hour at the end of the day for a course or going for a drink with some friends. For two weeks straight? Exactly – your irrational mind is already making up excuses why you should be able to go out with friends. Nobody is saying you should not go out with your friends. Somebody is saying that you do not have to go out with your friends tonight. 

You know that no matter how well you do at the marshmallow test, a hard task awaits you in turning around your academic performance.

The trick to improving your academic performance is simple. In fact, you have had so many opportunities to show to yourself that you are very capable of performing well. You may be smart enough, but are you behaving smart enough?

Marshmallows have no predictive power. You do. Every morning you can predict whether you will perform today or not. And every morning you have a chance to prove yourself wrong. Or right.

It really does not matter how long you leave the marshmallow on the table. What matters is that every day you do what has to get done. If you think that is partying – you might as well have that marshmallow now.

Test anxiety

It is quite simple. Too much test anxiety inhibits your ability to exercise your intelligence. The good news is it is very malleable, hence you can decrease your test anxiety, thus increasing your ability to perform cognitive tasks – committing new information to memory and answering questions about what you have learnt.

Already primed to think in this direction whilst reading Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, it seems that your emotional brain (the pre-historic part of your brain) is extremely powerful and exerts a tremendous amount of influence over your ability to use your intelligence. Left unchecked, your emotional brain reigns supreme, thus inhibiting your cognitive performance. Not what you want when you are trying to do well in your studies.

Here is the good news. Your rational brain has the capacity to regulate your emotional responses; in fact, you can train this ability. Mastering (finally, I managed to slip that word in to a blog again!) your emotions can lead to improved control over impulses, which helps you develop the habits you need to cultivate to improve your study results.

One does not simply… excel in academia. It requires dedication and devotion; perhaps emotional mastery is the first step. And it is not even a university course.

Test anxiety is an emotion; fear. A very powerful emotion which primes your body for many things, but not for excellent cognitive performance. It is not that you are not intelligent, you are not letting your intelligence flourish when you let fear take command of your brain.

Study. Practice. Talk to your peers. Take a course in test taking. If you put some conscious effort into training, your test anxiety decreases and, yes, your test performance will increase.