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The Rest of the Story

Actions against inequality for improving children's social opportunities

Dr. Michael Pratt, Psychology Department, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario

Walter MISCHEL, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self Control, New York, Little, Brown and Company, 2014, [ed. cast.: El test de la golosina: cómo entender y manejar el autocontrol, Barcelona, Debate, 2015]

Robert PUTNAM, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2015.

We all love a good story, especially one with a happy ending. Narratives are the everyday coin of our private and public lives, even in the fields of science themselves. Scientific discovery can be told as a journey with twists, turns and surprises, as scholars struggle towards greater understanding.  Walter Mischel’s book, The Marshmallow Test, is an example of this genre, a story of surprise and discovery that encompasses much of his long research career.  Robert Putnam’s book, Our Kids, tells a story too, about families’ lives and the issues of rising class inequality and its implications for America’s children.  The science narrative in Our Kids is written at a very different level of analysis than the one in The Marshmallow Test, and from a different disciplinary perspective (sociology versus psychology, respectively). Yet reading these two books together proves an interesting exercise in considering social science stories and their interpretive contexts.

First, The Marshmallow Test.  As a young psychologist at Harvard, Mischel began his research studying differences in how preschoolers behaved when given the choice of receiving either an immediate reward (say a marshmallow) or a bigger reward (two marshmallows), but only after waiting through a few minutes delay. Mischel, a clinical psychologist, had not thought of this little study as a “test” to predict later development.  But circumstances led him to follow up his original preschoolers years later, and to his surprise, these early delay patterns proved to be unexpectedly predictive of many facets of their later lives.  The follow-up story to this discovery forms the heart of the book, a story about good self-control in children predicting to later successes in adult life.  These included healthy restraint (marked by lower body mass and less smoking), more satisfaction in close relationships and even better personal savings for retirement. They also included predicting variations in adult brain states, the holy grail of modern neuroscience.

The beginning section of the book tells the story of how this phenomenon of long-term prediction of self-control skills was discovered.  The second part then unpacks how self-control works and the scientific efforts to understand it and its impact, efforts that link to recent theorizing on fast versus slow systems of cognitive processing and how they can be coordinated. Delay largely benefits the slow, “cool” system, located in the prefrontal cortex, and gives this system a better chance to control the fast, “hot” system in the brain that desperately craves that marshmallow right there in front of you. 

These first two sections of the book thus develop the narrative entertainingly and with care.  They knit together the story of Mischel’s widely influential work on this and related topics, such as personality and the impact of situations on social behaviors.  But every story needs an ending, preferably a happy one, where problems are solved and things turn out well. The third part of the book covers implications for public policy and the role of educational programs designed to foster self-control in children. 

An important theme of the book is that many children grow up in stressful settings that make it more difficult, but also more imperative, to achieve effective self control.  Several of the personal stories told in the book are focused on the efforts of individual children in overcoming early limitations in their lives, often socioeconomic ones.  George, for example, from Chapter 8, is now a student at Yale, but was originally from an impoverished area of New York City, with immigrant parents, a terrible local public school and neighborhood, and a lot of bad attitude of his own by age 9.  His subsequent story illustrates how being lucky enough to get into an excellent nearby school through a lottery, where mature self-control and other good things were fostered, turned his life around. The upbeat ending section of Mischel’s book is framed around ideas for individually-focused approaches to work with those, like George, in need of help. 

But stories in science are often more nuanced than the clear, iconic ones we prefer in real life.  Some recent research on physical health by developmental psychologist Gene Brody and colleagues studied impoverished rural African-American youth who were tested for self-control repeatedly from ages 17 to 20.  In a follow-up at age 22, these young adults showed the effects on behavioral and mental health measures that Mischel would predict, better adjustment being linked with better self-control.  But they also showed something else more troubling.  The physical health of these high self-control young adults, particularly cardiovascular functioning, was actually poorer than those lower in self-control, suggesting possible negative effects of exerting self-control while remaining in high stress, difficult environments.  And a recent study with a new sample by this same team showed advanced markers of biological aging in the cells of poor African-American youth high in self-control.  These authors suggested that self-control may work better in some environments than others, and that more needs to be done to understand possible paradoxical health effects of self-control in stressful environments.  

From this perspective, then, we should also aim to change the disadvantaged environments that youth face in achieving self-control, not just shape their own individual skills.  Here’s where Putnam’s recent book, Our Kids, comes in.  It focuses on how opportunities for children in the US have become more unequal by social class in recent decades.  Putnam, an expert on policy research, thoughtfully and thoroughly reviews trends by social class in the U.S. in four separate chapters on family structure, parenting and child development, schooling, and community contexts. In chart after chart of extensive survey data, and in compelling personal stories drawn from a series of interviews he conducted in middle and working class families, Putnam provides overwhelming evidence, not just that class inequality of opportunity is wide, but that this gap between rich and poor families in the U.S. has become much greater over the past few decades, and is harming children and the wider U.S. society itself. 

In Putnam’s last chapter, he discusses the implications of this growing inequality and what to do about it, searching for ways of redeeming this sad recent story. He argues that the wider society needs to commit to a view of responsibility for all “our kids,” not just those in their own families.  This message is surely part of the context in thinking about how to benefit the lives of the next generation, including the poor and those with limited skills in areas such as self-control. Training individual children’s skills can help, but it may be limited (and even risky) without a wider societal commitment to changing social environments. 

Despite this compelling general point regarding societal investment, however, I think that Our Kids’ story-ending policy chapter also disappoints. In it, Putnam briefly reviews a wide range of programs that have been, or might be, directed to expanding equality of opportunity for poor children.  Unfortunately, this comes across as almost a grab-bag (a “menu of complementary approaches,” Putnam calls it) of current possibilities that exist in the marketplace of social policy ideas, with very little in the way of systematic prioritizing.  For example, there is a review of programs to address the problems of single-parenting, still more common in working than middle class families, which Putnam argues in Chapter 2 is a risk factor for poor child outcomes.  The range of proposals mentioned to address this includes programs to strengthen marriages, expand contraceptive availability to limit unwanted pregnancies for single women, reduce incarceration of non-violent offenders so they can remain at home as parents, and others.  All these ideas may be valuable in themselves, but note that here they are directed at the policy goal of maintaining two parent families, as a kind of “stand-in” for the ultimate priority of improving poor children’s later life outcomes. Indeed, these policy goals often aim at making working class families and kids look more middle class.  In fact, though, it makes less sense to target and evaluate change at this family structure level if we cannot show that single parent families are actually causing children’s poorer outcomes.  Putnam himself notes in his chapter on family structure that this has been a difficult claim to sort out. Single parenting is correlated with bad outcomes for children, but evidence that it actually causes such outcomes is still weak. Despite his careful review chapters, then, Putnam inexplicably fails to use these commentaries clearly in setting priorities in his own final policy chapter. 

To prioritize intervention efforts usefully, one key consideration is the clarity of evidence on how broad social policy targets, like supporting two-parent families, directly link to outcomes in children’s later lives, such as the capacity for self-control examined in detail in The Marshmallow Test. Mischel’s book is a good model for tying policy interventions to specific outcomes at the level of children’s own skills, important evidence as we evaluate how to investigate at the policy level how to change poor children’s opportunities.  It seems that Our Kids’ policy review could benefit from more consideration of “the rest of the story” too, in this case a clearer focus on context at the level of family and children’s specific outcomes.  Of course, no single book can be expected to cover all these complex levels of analysis in full.  Nevertheless, there is value in considering how stories from different disciplines illuminate varied perspectives and background assumptions as seen from each.  Ultimately, both research and story-telling in science demand such nuance.  

Dr. Michael Pratt
Psychology Department
Wilfrid Laurier University
Waterloo, Ontario

 

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