Virtues Require Underlying Framework

Jackie Gingrich Cushman

7/17/2014 12:01:00 AM - Jackie Gingrich Cushman

This summer has served as a reminder to me about the virtue of virtues, specifically hard work and perseverance. Last winter, our 12-year-old son, Robert, was accepted into an honors performance group as a string bass player, based on his teacher's recommendation and an MP3 submission of his playing. In May, he was sent four pieces of music to master by late June, when he was to perform them in New York.

It was not easy. The music arrived late, and his summer schedule was already mostly filled with plans for a vacation and camp -- but the music had to be learned.

It wasn't until Robert's bass teacher mentioned to me in passing that the Mendelssohn piece was hard for him (the teacher) to play, that I became concerned. Well, never to be deterred by the prospect of hard work, we cancelled a few previously scheduled camps, added a few practice sessions during summer vacation and watched with pride as our son trudged forward, practicing his bass for hours each day.

There were a few moments when he (or maybe it was I) felt overwhelmed, unsure that it was possible, but -- after mutual reinforcement and additional hard work -- progress continued.

When Robert arrived last month in New York City, he was ready, placing third out of five in his section (where he was the youngest performer). While his eyes looked a little tired during the performance, he excelled and was glad that he had worked hard to ensure his success.

What he learned was that hard work and perseverance make success achievable. It helped that the framework he had been given at the beginning stayed the same.

Many of us are familiar with the marshmallow test conducted in the 1960s and 1970s by Walter Mischel at Stanford University. During the test, a child was offered two alternatives -- a small treat immediately or the promise of two treats some 15 minutes later. The test data showed that the children who delayed gratification had better outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, education and body mass index.

In 2012, researchers from the University of Rochester, led by Celeste Kidd and Holly Palmeri, tested to see if a prior intervention could change children's ability to delay gratification. In this test, the children were divided into two groups. In one group, the unreliable reward group, the children were promised better art supplies or stickers when the researcher returned. When the researcher returned he or she was empty-handed.

In the second group, the reliable reward group, the same promises were made -- and kept.

The next step was to offer the children from either group the immediate reward of a single marshmallow or the option to wait for the researcher to return with two marshmallows.

The children in the unreliable group often immediately gobbled up the marshmallow as the researcher left. The children in the reliable group waited four times as long (12 minutes versus three).

For these children to delay gratification, they needed to understand that the promises they had received would be kept.

A recent study, "Time Preferences and Criminal Behavior," by David Akerlund, Bart H.H. Golsteyn, Hans Gronqvist and Lena Lindahl provides "the first assessment of the link between time preferences and criminal behavior," according to results published in the Institute for the Study of Labor Discussion Papers, May 2014.

According to the researchers, "time preferences significantly predict crime." In everyday terminology, this means that those who discount the future are more likely to engage in criminal activity. You have to believe you have a future to be concerned about your place in the future. The researchers further detailed that the "results potentially have other policy implications in the sense that early interventions that make individuals more future-oriented may be used as a tool to combat crime," and "increased education can be used as a way to combat crime (e.g. Lochner and Moretti 2004). One reason for this could be that education makes individuals more future oriented."

This could be the result of the underlying framework of the education system, especially colleges, where there are clear guidelines (professors' syllabi) and results based on students' achievements. This experience creates a framework of reward that reinforces virtues (hard work and perseverance).

When thinking about instilling virtues, it's important to remember that frameworks and foundations must come first.

To find out more about Jackie Gingrich Cushman, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.

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