At the beginning of December, All Our Kin hosted an event at the Bijou Theatre celebrating our work in Bridgeport, Stamford, and Norwalk. You have already read the beautiful speech given by family child care provider Natasha Auguste-Williams that evening, but today, we’d like to share parts of the keynote speech from Professor Walter Mischel as well. Professor Mischel, the Niven Professor of Humane Letters in Psychology at Columbia University, is best known for his groundbreaking “marshmallow test” research in the 1960s, which studied self-control and delayed gratification in young children. This fall, he published The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, an exploration of self-control and the long-term implications of his famous experiment. At the Bijou Theatre on December 4, he spoke about his early career, the brain science behind the marshmallow test, and how to combat the “biology of disadvantage.”
Marshmallows and Oreos
Mischel’s work with young children began in the early 1950s. “I was going to school in New York City to get my Master’s Degree, but at the same time I was working with these three, four, and five year olds from a terribly toxic, stressful environment in the Lower East Side of New York. I realized that this was going to be what I would try to understand: what those kids were going through, how they were growing.” A dozen years later, as a professor at Stanford University, he developed an experiment that would change the way we think about delayed gratification and become a household name.
The concept of the marshmallow test was fairly simple: a researcher offered a choice between getting one treat immediately, or getting two treats after waiting by themselves in the testing room for a brief period. “The cover of my book is misleading,” noted Professor Mischel. “First, we didn’t always use marshmallows. In Chile in the 1980s, we used Oreo cookies. And when we did use marshmallows, they weren’t great big marshmallows, they were very tiny, not because we were unwilling to be generous to kids, but because we wanted to give them a really tough conflict. The one and the two are really not all that different, but they’ve made a decision to wait and go for the two. It was set up deliberately to be a tough, tough choice for a four or five year old.”
Critically, before presenting the choice, the researcher established a trusting relationship with the child through games. The child knew that when she rang a bell, the researcher would come back to the testing room. “She rings the bell to bring back the researcher, and he jumps right back in the room: ‘You see? You brought me back.’ The child understands that. Promises have been repeatedly kept.”
The Two Brains
Mischel played video clips of the experiment for the audience to show how agonizing the wait can be: one child has a silent argument with herself; another climbs on the back of his chair, apparently in order to get himself as far away from the treat as possible. After weighing their options, some children just give in and decide that the wait isn’t worth it. But although watching their efforts was amusing for an outside audience, Mischel explained that these clips are also incredibly meaningful. They are demonstrations of the brain’s ability to create strategies for overcoming challenging situations. “What allows that to happen?” he asked. “What allows kids to develop a brain that lets them make reasonable decisions, take the future into account, self-instruct? That’s what our research was doing, is asking those questions.”
“We don’t have just one brain,” Mischel told the audience. “That is, we have one brain that has two very different systems within it. One system is the hot system – technically, it’s called the limbic system. It’s in the lower brain, below the prefrontal cortex. And within it, there is a structure called the amygdala, which is central to the experience of fear and appetite. It’s enormously important for us as human beings because in the distant past of our species we’ve had to survive in terribly difficult primitive conditions – the desert, the savannah, the jungle. This hot system lets us do things reflexively. The moment we hear the sound of a gunshot, we dive under a table. The hot system is very basic, and valuable, but it doesn’t take the future into account. It’s emotional but not rational. It’s no good for things like planning for retirement, or thinking about college, or waiting and working to get more marshmallows.
“The part of the brain that has everything to do with planning, and control, and the future, is the cool system, the prefrontal cortex. That’s what we saw in play with those four and five year old children in those videos. Their cool system allowed them to do something that’s we now call ‘executive function.’ And what that means, is that they have a delayed goal in their minds: ‘I am waiting for two Oreo cookies.’ It means that they are able to inhibit all the many interfering responses that might prevent them from keeping that delayed goal in mind. It means that instead of thinking about the cookie, thinking about how sweet it is, and how yummy it is, and how they really want to eat it, they do something else. They turn the tough waiting situation into a game. They tease themselves. They sing songs to themselves. They create all kinds of wonderful distractions to make it possible for them to keep waiting .”
Combatting the Biology of Disadvantage: Putting Science into Action
Mischel emphasized that the ability to use the prefrontal cortex in this way is not a given. It is only possible when a child trusts that the reward for waiting is actually attainable. If the child doesn’t believe that the researcher’s promise – that if he waits, he will get two cookies – will be kept, why would he put all that effort into waiting? Within the confines of the experiment, the researcher must make sure to create that relationship of trust and predictability, but what about in the wider world? What happens when a child grows up in an environment where trust and predictability aren’t guaranteed? “This is what some scientists are now referring to as the ‘biology of disadvantage,’” Mischel said in his speech. “When a child grows up in a high-poverty, extremely unpredictable environment – in which anything can happen, in which danger is constantly present, in which chaos is always possible – it affects him at a biological level. Those experiences turn into chronic stress, or toxic stress, and they actually change his brain. They limit the potential of the cool system to make long-term plans and be patient and work for a distant goal.”
Fighting against the biology of disadvantage requires a sustained effort that begins at birth, or even earlier, which is why creating high quality early care and education is so important for vulnerable children. “By providing a sense of trust, a sense that the rewards are attainable, that promises will be kept, that life doesn’t have to be chaotic and unpredictable, you folks are providing exactly the basis for the development of the cool system, and for the regulation of the hot system,” Mischel told family child care providers. “The kids who have that when they are two years old are the same kids who are successful at the marshmallow test at five.”
He continued, “For me, the experience of getting to know what All Our Kin is about has been enormously exciting and emotionally rewarding. Because I think that what you folks are doing is putting into action everything that science has discovered in the past half-century about how the mind develops… What you are doing every day is creating trustworthy, loving environments in which kids have the opportunity to thrive and grow, and to recognize their own ability to make choices, to have joy, to have success experiences, and to begin to fulfill their lives. Everything I know that you’ve done here, you’ve done in the right way. So I congratulate you.”
We thank Professor Mischel for his words of support and for his many years of research on behalf of young children!