Curiosity as Important as Self-Control for Future Success

You may be familiar with the famous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, which was a series of studies on delayed gratification in the late 1960s and early 1970s led by psychologist Walter Mischel, then a professor at Stanford University. In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately or two small rewards if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned. (The reward was sometimes a marshmallow, but often a cookie or a pretzel.) In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index (BMI), and other life measures. (Wikipedia)

There is even a video depicting what the experiment was like:

As a result of such findings, educators have focused on how to foster children’s self-control. But now a new study in the journal Pediatric Research suggests boosting children’s natural curiosity may be equally crucial to their long-term learning.

Researchers from the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and the Center for Human Growth and Development tracked 6,200 children participating in the federal Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, a nationally representative longitudinal study.

In addition to testing students for early math and literacy skills, the study also gauged other traits, such as invention, imagination, attention to new tasks, and eagerness to learn new skills. The researchers found that even after controlling for differences in children’s backgrounds and whether or not they had attended preschool, the young children’s curiosity—in particular their eagerness to learn new things”—was as good a predictor of their later kindergarten math and reading achievement as were early measures of self-control.

Moreover, the benefits of being highly curious were greater for students in poverty. A low-income child with low curiosity had [on average] lower math and reading achievement by the end of kindergarten, compared to a high income child. But a low-income but highly curious child had achievement that was similar to a high-income child. Curiosity can mitigate or close that achievement gap in reading or math.

These results speak to the importance of encouraging curiosity and fostering a love for learning in young children.

These results also remind me of Albert Einstein’s famous quote:

“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”

It also made me think of a revised marshmallow experiment.

Instead of testing to see if a chid can hold off eating a marshmallow for promise of a future reward, place them in a room with a bag of marshmallows and have them come up with three things they could do with the marshmallows, besides eating them.

Off the top of my head, here are my three:

  1. take out three of them and start juggling
  2. make a hole all the way through the marshmallows, then run a string through them and use them for Christmas tree decorations
  3. use them to protect breakable items when packing

I’d love to see what ideas a class of kindergarteners would come up with.

*photo from NPR web site

2 thoughts on “Curiosity as Important as Self-Control for Future Success

  1. I think you’d like the book Curious? by Todd Kashdan who quit his job on Wall Street midcareer to start over in… psychology. He’s now a professor at George Mason University.
    (Subtitle of his book: Discover the missing ingredient to a fulfilling life.)
    In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell also points out how important curious is as a key it is to success. Truly curious people see much more than your average person even just walking down the street and are able to connect dots others don’t even see.

    I think the biggest danger of smartphones is they feed curiosity too much so we scroll based on addictive algorithms and miss both the trees AND the forest all around us as we keep our eyes glued to content on a screen that someone else has determined we should watch –“based on our viewing history.” It’s limiting and kinda scary.

    I can read the news on my phone or in our daily paper, the Washington Post. When I put out the recyling, I’m always amazed at the many interesting stories I’ve missed because I was instead reading yet another story about Trump that came to my feed.

    You’ve just convinced me to NOT to pick up the phone for the news and instead pick up the Post. They do a far better job finding and curating interesting news stories for me than silicone valley.


    1. Thanks for the recommendation on Curious?, it does sound like a book I would enjoy. I also read the news on my iPhone, but try to limit it to either the WSJ or NYT. I’m not always successful, but maybe I’ll try to do a better job as well.


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