Challenges to Marshmallows and Mindset

Over the last couple weeks, significant challenges to two of the most popular Positive Psychology concepts have emerged. The Marshmallow test, a foundational piece of research behind GRIT, and the effect of growth mindset have each faced serious criticism.

I've seen both GRIT and growth mindset spread like wildfire in athletic environments. Do these new challenges mean we should throw them away just as quickly? Probably, not, but let's see what is going on with each argument.

Rich Marshmallows

For those not familiar with the "Marshmallow Test", Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel conducted the original research in the 1960s. Young children were placed in a room with a marshmallow, told they could have it right away if they wanted, but if they could wait for fifteen minutes they could have to.

The study was longitudinal, and Mischel tracked all sorts of outcomes for the children. His conclusion was that children who could delay gratification had better academic, professional and life outcomes later on.

Angela Duckworth's GRIT was inspired in many ways by this research. The connection was simple, since GRIT had to do with perseverance towards long term goals. You were more likely to persevere towards long term goals if you could delay the gratification of achieving said goals.

The challenge to these assumptions came from two researchers at NYU, Tyler Watts and Greg Duncan. They diverged from Mischel in a couple of crucial ways. First, they surveyed a much bigger population (900 vs 90) and picked a more representative population. Mischel's original population were all children enrolled in a Stanford preschool..

Not only did they find limited evidence for the correlation between delayed gratification and better outcomes, but crucially the more privileged kids were "better" at delaying gratification.

Think about it for a second- if you are starving, either physically or emotionally, are you really going to be good at waiting for that extra marshmallow?

In swimming, we tilt towards a highly delayed gratification model. Many kids are taught that, post-puberty, they will work for a long time before they see rewards from that work.

On a more micro-level, the structure of swim meets mean that many young kids have to wait for long periods of time to get the "reward" of actually racing. There may be little tangible reward either, as a wise man once told me "A kid who gets 4th place in his summer league meet and scores points for the team has had a more meaningful athletic experience than the kid who just got 37th at Sectionals"

Many would argue that how much we delay gratification is something good about the sport of swimming. 

However, a legitimate criticism of swimming is that we are not an inclusive sport. We are overwhelmingly white and well to do. Are we widening that gap by the way we structure competitive swimming across the board?

Does a "Growth Mindset" matter?

Growth mindset has been incredibly popular in educational and athletic circles since Carol Dweck wrote "MIndset: The New Psychology of Success" in 2006. Even before that, I can remember aspects of what would come to be associated with Growth Mindset in my own life.

I can remember a middle school teacher who banned the word "smart" because it implied that intelligence was a fixed trait that couldn't be improved. 

Both these challenges are part of a growing trend, a healthy one, in psychology. That is, many popular pieces of psychological research have not had their findings replicated thoroughly. That is not Carol Dweck's fault, and kudos to her for getting the ball rolling and forging ahead.

In this particular challenge, researchers tried to measure the effect of Growth Mindset interventions by doing a 229 study meta-anaylsis. The results? They found that the interventions had a very tiny effect.

It's hard to figure out exactly why, and the piece above features some conclusions made by the researchers. I can say that in my own work, I do not often talk about "mindset". I don't do it because I have never been able to feel that my own understanding is up to snuff to teach to others.

Once you introduce a concept like Growth Mindset, you have to be aware that it becomes a living organism within the population you have introduced it to. It will go in all sorts of directions that you do not intend.

One of the most comment with any type of intervention like this is that participants will jump to the opposite conclusion that you want them to. While you are telling them that having a mindset that sees opportunities for growth and improvement is key to success, they may be looking at themselves as unsuccessful, and therefore fixating on their poor "mindset".

This is one reason I refuse to do "one and done" type visits to teams and urge some self-exploration when speaking at a coaching clinic before coaches try to use concepts with their teams. With a team, whenever I introduce a concept I want to make sure I am coming back to see what i have said has turned into.

In yesterday's podcast, Trever Gray does a nice bit towards the end of his portion talking about how he tests conclusions on himself.

What Now

I've gotten serious criticism for urging caution with these topics. I've also been asked many times why I don't write more about Positive Psychology. 

The reasons are one and the same. I urge caution because even after spending the better part of 12 months on intensive study of these topics, I didn't feel knowledgeable enough to share. I spent years afterwards in discussion with people out in the field practicing, as well as my own careful trial and error.

Rather than make me feel like more of an expert, I have become more attuned to what I might not know. I therefore write and talk about a limited set of concepts, only ones in which I feel very confident that I can deal with all the potential outcomes after introducing a concept. 

As swim coaches, we often feel pressure to be knowledgable in a huge range of subject areas. I feel that pressure less and less.