Does Self Control Determine Class?

Melodye-e1280449255170 Melody Dye in Scientopia:

In previous research, Mischel has found that children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds tend to perform worse than upperclass children on tests of delay of gratification. Given that he’s also found that the time children spend delaying in the cookie task is predictive of a suite of life outcomes – including everything from their later social well-being to their academic achievement and professional advancement – he makes a logical leap: Might social classes diverge, he asks, based on our ability to exercise self-control?

It’s critical that I note that Mischel is not a biological determinist on this [1]. He is not suggesting that people who live in poverty are all simply indolent and stupid, or that they are somehow morally suspect. To the contrary, Mischel tends to remove all moral weight or judgment from his discussions of self control, and in much of his work, characterizes control as a largely learned behavior. If he makes generalizations on the basis of class (which he does), I believe this derives more from his training as a scientist, and less from any particular political attitudes or leanings. He is simply looking to make sense of trends in human behaviors, and uses “delay of gratification” as a prism through which to understand them.

In any case, the question Mischel poses become doubly interesting in light of Ramscar and Tran’s findings. As detailed above, and in earlier posts, their results indicate that “self control” behavior in the cookie task is strongly tied up with verbal ability. Indeed, they found that vocabulary is a better predictor of delay times than age or cognitive control.

What I haven’t mentioned yet – and what may surprise you – is what predicts vocabulary.

As it turns out, one of the best predictors of how many words a toddler knows is socioeconomic status.