Full of Fluff?

It is one of the most influential social science research studies ever conducted. For the past thirty years, it has served as a foundation for most work on the subjects of willpower and grit.  
The Marshmallow Test, as it is referred, was a simple experiment that offered kids a marshmallow to eat.  However, if they could wait 15 minutes – while sitting alone in a room with the marshmallow in front of them – they would earn a second marshmallow.  Years later the researcher, Walter Mischel followed up to see how the kids who participated were doing. Those who delayed gratification and earned a second treat were found to have significant benefits ranging from higher test scores, better educational outcomes, fewer teen pregnancies etc.
Over the course of time, there have been follow up studies that have thrown some wrinkles into these conclusions.  One demonstrated that a child’s level of trust in adults also had significant impact on their decision to wait.
A new study goes one step further, threatening to undermine most if not all of the original findings. It turns out that the major driver determining whether a child waits is not their innate willpower or grit, but their background – specifically their parent’s education and wealth. 
You see once controlling for demographics they saw no difference within certain groups. Children of educated parents did no better later in life whether or not they delayed gratification.  Similarly, there weren’t differences among children from low-income homes regardless of whether they had the willpower to wait.
The implications of this new research are far-reaching. The original study is a linchpin in child development and whole cottage industries have sprung up trying to develop grit and willpower in children – especially those from lower income backgrounds.
What is most interesting to me is why we were so willing to accept the initial premise.  Apparently there have always been some elements of the original research design that begged questioning.  And the idea of controlling for demographics is a long held research practice.
So what took so long?
We are a nation built on the idea that if we put our mind to it we can do anything. That we are the primary drivers of our own life and where there is a will there is always a way.
The Marshmallow Study fit so neatly into this bootstrap narrative, it is easy to see why it was so appealing to people across the political spectrum. It appears to be as clear an example of confirmation bias as you’ll see.
Did we really believe if we could train more kids to resist marshmallows, they would be able to escape poverty and overcome the myriad of real world challenges that come with it?
Escaping poverty is hard work and requires incredible will. But, as this study shows, it not an child’s will that needs developed. It is ours.  

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