Research Summaries: Self-controlled children stay leaner in the transition to adolescence

This research summary is similar to the earlier one where self-control predicted overweight status; Angela and team have co-authored a similar paper, though based on a different data set and controlling for more confounds.

Picture of an Obese Teenager (146kg/322lb) wit...

Picture of an Obese Teenager (146kg/322lb) with Central Obesity, side view.Self Made Picture of an Obese Teenager (Myself) (146kg/322lb) with Central Obesity, Front View. Feel Free to use. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. Self-control is a variable of concern as ” In this obesogenic context, self control, the capacity to regulate behavior, attention, and emotion in the service of personal standards and goals, is required to forego immediate gratification and choose instead options that protect against weight gain.”
  2. Weight control may be important for teens, not only for its long term health associations, but also because of its impact on physical attractiveness.
  3.  This study was a prospective longitudinal study that looked at over 100 children in a school setting, and measured their self control and BMI while in grade 5 (mean age 10.5) and correlated it with their BMI when in grade 8.
  4. Self-control was measured using a variety of methods. Students filled 2 self-report measures of self-control: The Impulsivity subscale of the Eysenck I6 Junior Questionnaire and The Brief Self-Control Scale. Parents as well as teachers also filled the informant version of Brief self-control scale. Apart from this Kirby Delay-Discounting Rate Monetary Choice Questionnaire was used to present hypothetical choices between small reward now and large reward later, meant to judge the delay of gratification. Also an actual behavioral delay of gratification task was used to ascertain self-control. A composite measure was created from these measures.
  5. Potential confounds like demographics (SES), Happiness (measured by SSLS and PANAS-C) and Intelligence (Otis- Lennon School Ability Test—Seventh Edition Level F) were measured and controlled for in the analysis.
  6. The authors replicated their earlier result that low self-control in childhood, indeed leads to weight gain in transition to adolescence. High self-control, on the other hand, protects children form weight gain.

Overall, this is a nice addition and replication of the earlier paper that we have already summarized. If you want to check out the paper its available online here.

Book Reviews: Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

I have read quite a few books that fall into the ‘hard work triumphs intelligence’ camp, such as ‘Peak’ by Anders Ericsson, ‘Talent is overrated‘ by Geoff Colvin and ‘Outliers‘ by Malcolm Gladwell. And I am more than sympathetic to that viewpoint, however I have always believed in a  more nuanced picture. The ability to work hard, is again, just part of the equation explaining outstanding achievements, there is more than enough room for other non-cognitive factors like passion, hope, purpose etc to impact performance.

English: Millstone grit

English: Millstone grit (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And that is what Angela tries to do in Grit. She is obsessed, in a harmonious way, with what leads to success and high/ exceptional achievements. After showing that talent/intelligence/ IQ only explains part of the picture,  she makes a strong case for non-cognitive factors as being more predictive of success in life than the so called cognitive factors.

Angela defines Grit as a combination of Passion and Perseverance. Passion is built by discovering, and more importantly, cultivating interest. Another source of passion is when you feel what you are doing is purposeful or helpful to others and connects to a bigger whole. Perseverance, on the other hand, can be cultivated by being optimistic/ hopeful, developing a growth mindset and indulging in deliberate practice.

Now, some people have accused Angela of being too expansionist by including hope and growth mindset and purpose and what not in her theory of grit! I think that criticism is uncalled for- she is determined to find what makes people successful and what are its antecedents and mediators. If hope/ growth mindset is an antecedent to gritty behavior, I believe it makes sense for her to touch upon those subjects.

Some have claimed that grit is not yet ready for mainstreaming and that the damage one does by focusing solely on grit is more than its benefits. Angela, in her conclusion admits that she never intended or believes that grit is the only trait worth having; first there is a problem with the goal of success being a be all and end all; other goals like happiness, morality and meaning are legitimate both as ends in themselves and as predictors of good outcomes; secondly its not established that apart form IQ and grit, other factors like creativity etc are not that important for success.

One thing I found surprising was Angela’s reluctance to admit that too much grit may be harmful; brushing aside John Henryism or the need to disengage from goals at times, she come across as someone too invested in the concept of grit to acknowledge its dark side. The fact that these things are discussed in conclusion doesn’t make things any better. I guess an honest upfront admission of grits limitations as well as its power would help put things in perspective.

That said, I am not at all sympathetic to the many critical reviews of the book that have focused on the downsides of the concept / book to the exclusion of its utility/ strong points. Angela does a wonderful job of explaining her own and others peoples research and how it is related to what we know about who succeeds. She also has beautifully organized the book into sections where we can grow Grit from inside out (as end users)  or outside in (as parents, teachers working with kids etc).

As a matter of fact for those who read the book, but don’t manage the time or don’t have the inclination to go deep into original research, but would like to dig a little deeper, I am currently featuring Angela’s articles on my newly introduced research summary feature and you may like to check some Grit related articles there for now. These articles should give you additional insights about the data and studies that Angela refers in the book.

Also, I believe that Girt is ready for mass market adoption; I myself am running a long term VIA character strengths based positive education initiative for schools, and Grit is an integral part of our offering.

So my recommendation, do read Grit and grow it in yourself and others. It will definitely help you in good stead.

4 Answers to the Purpose of Life

People sometimes ask what is the purpose of life? Why should we exist or chose to continue existing? To them I typically pose a counter question, what purpose would *you* like to have for life and can you live your life ‘as if’ that is the purpose of life?  See an example answer I provide here about the meaning/ purpose of life.

 

However, this post is not about such philosophical questions.  Instead it builds on my previous posts about 4 major goals in life worth striving for. To recap the four major goals are 1) Happiness 2) Success 3) Morality 4) Meaning.

Sometimes you come across a blog toward which you feel a natural affinity and know where the blogger is coming from. I recently came across the blog Qualia Computing and was fascinated by some advanced common understanding about psychological issues that the blog author shows. For example, in this post the author asserts that purpose of life is

  1. To Understand the Universe

  2. To be Happy, and Make Others Happy

Also, later, the author asserts that any experience is valuable to the extent that it answers in affirmative to one or more of these questions:

  1. Does it feel good? (happy, loving, pleasant)

  2. Does it make you productive (in a good way)?

  3. Does it make you ethical?

Taken together with the earlier formulation about the purpose of life, one can add a fourth question 4) does it lead to better understanding (of the world) ?

Thus, imho, all actions should be guided by answers to the questions ‘would it make me happy, make me productive , would make me a good person or would make me understand things a bit more clearly? ‘

So how does all this relate to psychological concepts? For starters, there is a big debate in psychology about the difference between happiness and meaningfulness and also as to which one is a legitimate aim to strive for? While some would like us to believe that happiness is the ultimate currency, new research suggests that Meaningfulness in life has its own importance and that both are valuable outcomes in themselves and predict other valued outcomes.

Moving beyond a narrow focus on oneself- whether to be happy or lead a meaningful life; one is also hounded by the desire to make a positive difference or contribution to the world around us.  Some of us want to put a ding in the universe and leave our marks, while others are much more OK living a mediocre life , that is, content creating and leaving some small ripples around them.

The desire to create an impact leads us to the interpersonal sphere- where traits of competence and warmth are important. If someone needs our help we can either provide them practical help (similar to problem focused coping) based on our competence, or just be there for them (similar to emotion focused coping) based on our warmth and again create small ripples of kindness around us. Or we can also create a big impact by being outstanding in our field using our competence or becoming a  paragon of a character strength by using our warmth.

In either case, one purpose of life may be to increase productivity to become more and more successful (in helping others) and the other may be to become more and more ‘good’ or moral and doing the small, everyday right things that make a difference.  This is the contrast between being great and being good. This is also the contrast between being characterized mostly by doings or by beings.

In the happiness literature itself, there is a contrast between feeling happy (measured by presence of positive affect and absence of negative affect) and knowing that you are happy (life satisfaction etc), so the point being that there is also a contrast between feeling and knowing just like there is a contrast between doing and being.

In sum, the following four are the purposes of life:

  1. to be happy by feeling preponderance of positive emotions
  2. to be successful by doing a lot with a lot less (being productive)
  3. to be moral by being good and caring about others
  4. to be purposeful by knowing that what you do has value/ meaning

If we keep these four goals top of our minds, it is much more likely that our lives will turn out to be beautiful lives and we will feel less the need to ask the purpose of our lives!!

Research Summaries: Self-Control Protects Against Overweight Status in the Transition from Childhood to Adolescence

Grit and self-control are the two character strengths on which Angela Duckworth focuses a lot, and this research summary is about a paper co-authored by Angela that shows how a lack of self-control can lead to obesity and weight gain in adolescence; while being more self-controlled helps one stay leaner.

Body mass index. Graphics is made language ind...

Body mass index. Graphics is made language independent. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. The authors define self-control as ” the ability to override impulses in order to achieve goals and maintain standards”.  It is also the ability to resist short term temptations and distractions in service of long term benefits.
  2. Self-Control has many positive associations like increased life expectancy, higher report card grades and achievement test scores and career success. However not many have looked at whether and how self-control may be related to the right amount of body weight.
  3. Weight gain from childhood to adolescence is natural, but excessive weight gain that leads to high BMI (body mass Index) is problematic and associated with negative outcomes like coronary diseases, diabetes etc. some risk/ protective factors like Socio economic status (SES) and pubertal development are well established; however not much work has been done linking personality variables like self-control with excessive weight gain.
  4. As children enter adolescence they start exercising more and more autonomy regarding their lifestyle choices like when to eat , sleep etc. Self-control, or the ability to delay short term gratification in view of long term well-being, thus becomes a salient feature for them with regards to how they manage their weight.
  5. This study was a prospective longitudinal study that looked at nearly 850 children in a birth cohort, and measured their self control at age 9 and correlated it with their BMI at age 15.
  6. Self-control at age 9 was operationalised using informant ratings by mother, father and teacher on the items related to self-control on the  Social Skills Rating System (SSRS)questionnaire.  Overweight status was established by classifying those with BMI z-scores falling above 85th percentile as overweight.
  7. Other potential confounds like intelligence, pubertal status etc were also measured and used in the analysis.
  8. The results showed that the overweight children (at age 15) were half a standard deviation lower on self-control (at age 9) that the normal weight children. Similarly, those children who showed higher self control than average at age 9, were less likely to become overweight at age 15.
  9. The study is important because it points to one mutable, and under one’s control, factor that leads to excessive weight gain – Self control. Thus, this factor , self-control, can and should be taught during the childhood to adolescence transition.  It will not only help the obesity epidemic but will lead to other gains too!

If you want to dig deeper, here is the original article.

Research Summaries: Development and Validation of the Short Grit Scale (Grit–S)

This research summary will be especially attractive to those who have interest in psychometric and would like to see how the concept and measure of grit has evolved. In this paper, Angela Duckworth refines her measurement of grit and establishes the test-retest stability of the concept apart form predictive and  consensual validity.

Animation of a vernier caliper measuring a bolt

Animation of a vernier caliper measuring a bolt (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

  1. The authors wanted to come up with a briefer version of the grit scale, which would have better internal consistency and still retain the predictive power and the two factor structure of Consistency of Interests and Perseverance of effort.
  2. As such they dropped 2 items each from both the factor items and retained just 4 items each for each of the factors. The decision to drop the items was taken on the basis of analyzing data across four studies as delineated in their earlier paper, whose research summary is present here.  The newer 8 item Grit scale called Grrit -S retained predictive power and showed the same two factor structure.
  3. Similar to their earlier paper, they did an online study measuring grit-S/grit -O, big five traits as predictors and career changes and educational levels as outcome variables. Grit -S correlated with conscientiousness, but was still able to predict the outcomes over and beyond conscientiousness.
  4. Using the same online procedure, they asked subjects as well as informants (their friends  family members) to complete the Grit-S/Grit -O measures and established the consensual validity of the scale.
  5. In another study with students, they measured Grit-S/Grit -O  for two consecutive springs and established the test-retest stability of the scale as well as its predictive validity where GPA obtained was an outcome variable and so was the number of hours watching television.
  6. The next study was similar to the West point study they had done for earlier paper, but with grit-S predicting who makes it through the beast barracks.
  7. The last study was again a followup study of the national spelling bee competitors, this time with a new cohort, and using a new scale and led to similar results, whereby girt predicted who reached which round etc. based partly on who practiced how much and had prior experience participating.
  8. So, if you were looking for some more areas/ examples of the predictive power of grit, this doesn’t add much to what Anagela et al had presented in the earlier paper, but it does reconfirm finding with a shorter measure that also appears to be a better measure of grit.

so, if you are the one who is fascinated by how scales evolve, do check out this paper here.

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