A Different Construct

Walter Mischel is 87 at the time of this post. His most recent book, The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control Is the Engine of Success  published in 2014, recounts lessons learned over the years from one of the most famous research projects in the history of psychology. Each child participating in the study had two options: receive one marshmallow immediately or wait and receive two. The children who were able to choose delayed gratification went on to live more successful lives than those who could not or did not wait. Thus Mischel brought to light one of the most important constructs in the history of psychology.

It’s with trepidation I posit a construct that might shed additional light on Mischel’s seminal work. I am not a psychologist by profession nor by formal education. I will, none the less, put forward some ideas with the intention of revising them as needed after considering any comments you may wish to make on this post.

It seems safe to state that the primary variable in Mischel’s experiment was time. If the two different cases had involved immediacy, the implications would have been vastly different. For example, if a child who asked “May I (please) have a marshmallow” received one and a child who said “Give me a marshmallow” did not.

Likewise one can imagine any number of confounding variables, like offering  a marshmallow immediately and a piece of chocolate later. Even the number of marshmallows offered was not the issue. For example, if each child had been offered either one marshmallow right now or two right now.

So the big question to me is, “What was the dynamic that determined each child’s decision.” I believe the dynamic is fundamentally the ability to assign comparative values to “significance at a distance” and “immediate significance.” For those who chose immediate gratification, the immediate significance of consuming the marshmallow overshadowed the significance of consumption at a later time, at a distance in the space-time continuum.

So what I’m wondering is, “Would experience that enhances a child’s ability to process reality in multiple physical dimensions also enhance the ability to make a more balanced choice when some other dimension was involved, such as time?” My question is influenced at least in part by two personal experiences, which I will present briefly here.

My first experience with the challenge of multi-dimensionality came with solid geometry. Algebra, trig, and plane geometry were no problem. But solid geometry was a big challenge. It stressed me. I remember specifically feeling offended that for so many years my education had been primarily two dimensional, orthogonal and planar. In other words, I was expected to assimilate and perform in school via squared-off pieces of paper. The jump to three dimensions seemed unfair, the delay being a result of oversimplification of instruction based perhaps on expediency and economy in the educational process. Perhaps we can unpack all this in greater detail in future posts. Now though, I’d like to address the second personal experience that impacted me with regard to multi-dimensionality.

Locus problems were another huge challenge. It was cognitively painful to strive to comprehend equations describing the location of points moving through two, and even more so, three dimensional space. Locus was another subject where I became aware of how adding dimensions to a problem made it vastly more difficult to intuit.

So fundamentally, I wonder if involving children in three-dimensional activities, e.g. Zometool, as early as possible in their most critical periods of cognitive development would enhance their ability to evaluate “significance at a distance” when that distance happened to be along the time axis, or, by extension, some other dimensional axis.

The take away? For researchers, perhaps more research is merited. For parents and other significant adults in a child’s life, it would be to involve children in three dimensional activities as early as possible. As I mentioned in the earlier post, Santa Cometh, I’ve decided not to wait for all the research to be in. I’m doing what I can for Sophie now.