I had no idea how much thought actually went into the programming of Sesame Street before reading Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence.
Willpower is important to life success and that’s why Cookie Monster knows more about it than you.
Before we get to that, let’s consider the famous marshmallow test, a legendary study from the 1970s by psychologist Walter Mischel.
Mischel invited four-year-olds one by one into a “game room” at the Bing Nursery School on the Stanford campus. In the room the child was shown a tray with marshmallows or other treats and told to pick one she would like.
Then came the hard part. The experimenter told the child, “You can have your treat now, if you want. But if you don’t eat it until I come back from running an errand, you can have two then.”
The room was sanitized of distractions: no toys, no books, not even a picture. Self-control was a major feat for a four-year-old under such dire conditions. About a third grabbed the marshmallow on the spot, while another third or so waited the endless fifteen minutes until they were rewarded with two (the other third fell somewhere in the middle). Most significant: the ones who resisted the lure of the sweet had higher scores on measures of executive control, particularly the reallocation of attention.
How we focus holds the key to willpower, says Mischel. His hundreds of hours of observation of little kids fighting off temptation reveal “the strategic allocation of attention,” as he puts it, to be the crucial skill. The kids who waited out the full fifteen minutes did it by distracting themselves with tactics like pretend play, singing songs, or covering their eyes. If a kid just stared at the marshmallow, he was a goner (or more precisely, the marshmallow was).
When self-restraint comes up to instant gratification, there are three “sub-varieties of attention” that become engaged.
The first is the ability to voluntarily disengage our focus from an object of desire that powerfully grabs our attention. The second, resisting distraction, lets us keep our focus elsewhere— say, on fantasy play— rather than gravitating back to that juicy whatever. And the third allows us to keep our focus on a goal in the future, like the two marshmallows later. All that adds up to willpower.
That’s easy for a marshmallow you say. Show me something in real life. As you wish. Enter the children of Dunedin, New Zealand.
Dunedin has a populace of just over one hundred thousand souls and houses one of that country’s largest universities. This combination made the town ripe for what may be the most significant study yet in the annals of science on the ingredients of life success.
In a dauntingly ambitious project, 1,037 children— all the babies born over a period of twelve months— were studied intensively in childhood and then tracked down decades later by a team assembled from several countries. The team represented many disciplines, each with its own perspective on that key marker for self-awareness, self-control.
These kids underwent an impressive battery of tests over their school years, such as assessing their tolerance for frustration and their restlessness, on the one hand, and powers of concentration and persistence on the other.
After a two-decade lull all but 4 percent of the kids were tracked down (a feat far easier in a stable country like New Zealand than, say, in the hypermobile United States). By then young adults, they were assessed for:
(1) Health. Physicals and lab tests looked at their cardiovascular, metabolic, psychiatric, respiratory, even dental and inflammatory conditions.
(2) Wealth. Whether they had savings, were single and raising a child, owned a home, had credit problems, had investments, or had retirement funds.
(3) Crime. All court records in Australia and New Zealand were searched to see if they had been convicted of a crime.
The better their self-control in childhood, the better the Dunedin kids were doing in their thirties. They had sounder health, were more successful financially, and were law-abiding citizens. The worse their childhood impulse management, the less they made, the shakier their health, and the more likely it was that they had a criminal record.
The bigger shock? A child’s level of self-control is as powerful a predictor of adult financial success and health as are “social class, wealth of family of origin, or IQ.”
Bottom line: kids can have the most economically privileged childhood, yet if they don’t master how to delay gratification in pursuit of their goals those early advantages may wash out in the course of life. In the United States, for example, only two in five children of parents in the top 20 percent of wealth end up in that privileged status; about 6 percent drift down to the bottom 20 percent in income. Conscientiousness seems as powerful a boost in the long run as fancy schools, SAT tutors, and pricey educational summer camps. Don’t underestimate the value of practicing the guitar or keeping that promise to feed the guinea pig and clean its cage.
So where does the Cookie Monster come in? Well, anything we can do to increase “children’s capacity for cognitive control will help them throughout life.” What better way to give them tools than with the Cookie Monster?
If you thought Sesame Street was just for giggles, you’re wrong. It’s all about the science of learning. “At the core of every clip on Sesame Street is a curriculum goal,” said Michael Levine, executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center. “Everything we show is pretested for its educational value.”
A network of academic experts reviews show content, while the real experts— preschoolers themselves— ensure that the target audience will understand the message. And shows with a particular focus, like a math concept, are tested again for their educational impact on what the preschoolers actually learned.
“We need top researchers sitting with top writers in developing the shows,” said Levine. “But we need to get it right: listen to the scientists, but then play with it— have some fun.”
Take a lesson in impulse control, the secret sauce in a segment about the Cookie Connoisseur Club. Alan, the owner of Hooper’s Store on Sesame Street, baked cookies to be sampled by the club— but no one had planned for Cookie Monster to join. When Cookie arrives by surprise on the scene he, of course, wants to eat all the cookies.
Alan explains to Cookie that if you want to be a member of the club, you need to control your impulse to gobble up all the cookies. Instead, you learn to savor the experience. First you pick up the cookie and look for imperfections, then smell it, and finally nibble a bit. But Cookie, impulse embodied, can only gobble the cookie down.
To get the self-regulation strategies right in this segment, says Rosemarie Truglio, senior vice president for education and research, they consulted with none other than Walter Mischel, the mastermind behind the marshmallow test.
Mischel proposed teaching Cookie cognitive control strategies like “Think of the cookie as something else” and reminding himself of that something. So Cookie sees the cookie is round and looks like a yo-yo, and dutifully repeats to himself over and over that the cookie is a yo-yo. But then he gobbles anyway.
To help Cookie take just a nibble— a major triumph of willpower—Mischel suggested a different impulse-delay strategy. Alan tells Cookie, “I know this is hard for you, but what’s more important: this cookie now, or getting into the club where you’ll get all kinds of cookies?” That did the trick.
“Teachers in early grades tell (Sesame Street), I need kids to come to be ready to sit down, focus, manage their emotions, listen to directions, collaborate, and make friends,” Truglio explained. “Then I can teach them letters and numbers.”
Concluding, Goleman writes:
“Cultivating a sense for math and early literacy skills,” Levine told me, requires self-control, based on changes in executive function during the preschool years. The inhibitory controls related to executive functioning correlate closely with both early math and reading ability. “Teaching these self-regulation skills,” he added, “may actually rewire parts of the brain for kids in whom they have been underdeveloped.”
Check out this video.