You have probably heard of the marshmallow experiment, one of the most famous and widely cited studies in social psychology. In the experiments, led by Walter Mischel at Stanford University in 1972, pre-school children were offered a choice between an immediate small reward (such as a marshmallow) or a significantly larger reward if they could wait long enough (a few minutes) to receive it. A series of follow-up studies, beginning in 1988, found that those children who had been able to delay gratification in the original experiments had better educational achievements at school and in college than those who had less self-control.

The idea that character traits like self-control could have an important impact on educational outcomes clearly resonated with many people at the time. The studies inspired further research into what is now called socio-emotional learning, and helped to popularise many educational interventions across the world that sought to teach ‘character and resilience’ in schools. In Britain alone, £5 million was pledged for a programme in 2015 to promote what the government called ‘character work’, an initiative that saw rugby coaches being used to instil the values of respect, teamwork, enjoyment, and discipline in school children.

One person who was massively influenced by the marshmallow experiment (and who, in turn, massively influenced the character-building interventions in schools), was Angela Duckworth (Duckworth et al., 2013), who worked at Stanford between 2014 and 2015. Shortly after her studies into delay of gratification, Duckworth gave a TED talk called ‘Grit: the power of passion and perseverance’ which has now had almost 10 million views. A few years later, her book with the same title (Duckworth, 2016) was published. An instant best-seller, ‘grit’ became a ‘hot topic’ in education, and, according to the editors of a special issue of The Journal for the Psychology of Language Learning (MacIntyre & Khajavy, 2021), ‘interest appears to be rapidly expanding’. Duckworth has argued that self-control and grit are different and unrelated, but a number of studies have contradicted this view (Oxford & Khajafy, 2021), and the relationship between the two is clear in Duckworth’s intellectual and publishing trajectory.

This continued and expanding interest in grit is a little surprising. In a previous (June, 2020) blog post , I looked at the problems with the concept of ‘grit’, drawing on the work of Marcus Credé (2017; 2018) that questioned whether it made sense to talk about ‘grit’ as a unitary construct, noted the difficulty of measuring ‘grit’ and the lack of evidence in support of educational interventions to promote ‘grit’ (despite the millions and millions that have been spent). In a more recent article, Credé and his collaborator, Michael Tynan (Credé & Tynan, 2021), double-down on their criticisms, observing that ‘meta-analytic syntheses of the grit literature have shown that grit is a poor predictor of performance and success in its own right, and that it predicts success in academic and work settings far more poorly than other well-known predictors’. One of these other well-known predictors is the socio-economic status of students’ families. Credé and Tynan remain ‘deeply skeptical of the claim that grit, as a unitary construct formed by combining scores on perseverance and passion, holds much value for researchers focused on SLA—or any other domain’.

In the same journal issue as the Credé and Tynan article, Rebecca Oxford and Gholam Khajavy (2021) sound further notes of caution about work on ‘grit’. They suggest that researchers need to avoid confusing grit with other constructs like self-control – a suggestion that may be hard or impossible to follow if, in fact these constructs are not clearly separable (as Oxford and Khajavy note). They argue, too, that much more attention needs to be paid to socio-economic contexts, that structural barriers to achievement must be given fuller consideration if ‘grit’ is to contribute anything positive to social justice. Whether the other papers in this special edition of the Journal for the Psychology of Language Learning that is devoted to ‘grit’ heed the cautionary advice of Credé and Tynan, Oxford and Khajavy is, I think, open to debate. Perhaps the idea of a whole edition of a journal devoted to ‘grit’ is a problematic starting point. Since there is no shortage of reasons to believe that ‘grit’ isn’t actually a ‘thing’, why take ‘grit’ as a starting point for scholarly enquiry?

It might be instructive to go back to how ‘grit’ became a ‘thing’ in the first place. It’s an approach that the contributors to the special issue of the Journal for the Psychology of Language Learning have not adopted. This brings me back to the marshmallow test. At the time that ‘grit’ was getting going, Alfie Kohn brought out a book called ‘The Myth of the Spoiled Child’ (Kohn, 2014) that included a chapter ‘Why Self-Discipline Is Overrated: A Closer Look at Grit, Marshmallows, and Control from Within’. Kohn argued that educational ideas about ‘grit’ had misrepresented the findings of the marshmallow test and its follow-up studies. He argued that setting was more important than individual self-control, and that deferral of gratification was likely an effect, not a cause of anything. His ideas were supported by some of the original researchers, including Mischel himself. Another, Yuichi Shoda, a co-author of a key paper that linked delay of gratification to SAT scores, has observed that ‘Our paper does not mention anything about interventions or policies’ – many other factors would need to be controlled to validate the causal relationship between self-control and academic achievement (Resnick, 2018).

Interest in recent years in replicating experiments in social psychology has led to confirmation that something was seriously wrong with the follow-ups to the marshmallow experiment. Studies (e.g. Watts et al., 2018) with more representative and larger groups of children have found that correlations between academic achievement and self-control almost vanished when controlled for factors like family background and intelligence. Even if you can teach a child to delay gratification, it won’t necessarily lead to any benefits later on.

Self-control and ‘grit’ may or may not be different things, but one thing they clearly have in common is their correlation with socio-economic differences. It is distinctly possible that attention to ‘grit’, in language learning and in other fields, is a distraction from more pressing concerns. Pity the poor researchers who have hitched themselves to the ‘grit’ bandwagon … As Angela Duckworth has said, research into grit is itself ‘a delay of gratification test’ (Duckworth, 2013). You have to be really passionate about grit and show sustained persistence if you want to keep on publishing on the subject, despite all that we now know. She hopes ‘that as a field we follow through on our intentions to forgo more immediately rewarding temptations to instead do what is best for science in the long-run’. How about forgoing the immediately rewarding temptation of publishing yet more stuff on this topic?

References

Credé, M. (2018) What shall we do about grit? A critical review of what we know and what we don’t know. Educational Researcher, 47 (9), 606-611.

Credé, M. & Tynan, M. C. (2021) Should Language Acquisition Researchers Study “Grit”? A Cautionary Note and Some Suggestions. Journal for the Psychology of Language Learning, 3 (2), 37 – 44

Credé, M., Tynan, M. C. & Harms, P. D. (2017) Much ado about grit: A meta-analytic synthesis of the grit literature. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113 (3)

Duckworth, A. L. (2013) Is It Really Self-control: A Critical Analysis of the “Marshmallow Test” Society of Personality and Social Psychology Connections November 10, 2013 https://spsptalks.wordpress.com/2013/11/10/is-it-really-self-control-a-critical-analysis-of-the-marshmallow-test/

Duckworth, A. L., Tsukayama, E. & Kirby, T. A. (2013) Is it really self-control? Examining the predictive power of the delay of gratification response. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 843-855.

Duckworth, A. (2016) Grit: the power of passion and perseverance. New York: Scribner

Kohn, A. (2014) The Myth of the Spoiled Child. Boston: Da Capo Press

MacIntyre, P. & Khajavy, G. H. (2021) Grit in Second Language Learning and Teaching: Introduction to the Special Issue. Journal for the Psychology of Language Learning, 3 (2), 1-6. http://www.jpll.org/index.php/journal/article/view/86

Oxford, R. & Khajafy, G. H. (2021) Exploring Grit: “Grit Linguistics” and Research on Domain-General Grit and L2 Grit. Journal for the Psychology of Language Learning, 3 (2), 7 – 35

Resnick, B. (2018) The “marshmallow test” said patience was a key to success. A new replication tells us s’more. Vox, June 6, 2018. https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2018/6/6/17413000/marshmallow-test-replication-mischel-psychology

Watts, T.W., Duncan, G.J. & Quan, H. (2018) Revisiting the Marshmallow Test: A Conceptual Replication Investigating Links Between Early Delay of Gratification and Later Outcomes. Psychological Science 29 (7): 1159-1177.

Comments
  1. chasholmes says:

    Rigorous and enlightening as always. I may not always read the emails from you straight away but I never ever regret reading them. I’d already thought about removing Grit from a course I’m designing and now the decision has been made. Thank you for taking the time to dig into the things we should know and think about.

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