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Self-Work: A Racial History of Emotional Intelligence

Fri, November 9, 12:00 to 1:45pm, Westin Peachtree, Seventh, Augusta D (Seventh)


This paper addresses the phenomenon of psychologist Walter Mischel’s so-called “marshmallow test” which has long claimed to measure the relationship between preschoolers’ (though now also adults’) capacity for gratification delay and life success. I place the marshmallow test in the long history of heated debates about the three-way relationships between class, race, and self-
control (running from the brilliant African American educator Allison Davis in the 1940s
through the noxious arguments of Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the 1960s through to the therapeutic pop psych lit of the recent past and present).

Already in the late 1960s, Mischel began testing preschoolers on their ability to resist the temptation of one marshmallow available immediately in the expectation that if they waited they could have two marshmallows subsequently. Mischel saw his experiment as having a powerful predictive value, even as others – including Moynihan in his 1965 report on the African American family – racialized Mischel’s findings in a way that pathologized black youth. Yet self-discipline was a far older ideal, and had long been strongly race- and class-coded – even as earlier commentators worried either that too much self-control resulted in unhealthful neuroses or that there were powerful class-determined (not “racial”-biological) reasons for individuals with truncated life prospects to opt for immediate (rather than postponed) gratifications.

While by the 1970s-1980s, psychologists like Richard Herrnstein claimed to find correlations
between low impulse control, low IQ, and criminal behavior – and relied on Mischel’s ideas about links between “deviance” and low self-control to do so – by the mid-1990s, psychologist Daniel Goleman was promoting Mischel’s marshmallow test to advance a perspective that “emotional intelligence” – this too defined principally as ability to self-control – was vastly more important than IQ. Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence was enthusiastically taken up by white parents and educators hungry for alternatives to IQ, and Mischel’s marshmallow test has come to inform countless pop psych encomiums to the value of gratification delay – not coincidentally just in the years when also the white middle class has been confronting crashing loss of economic security. But most noteworthy today is the infusion of positive psychology à la Martin
Seligman into the message of self-control now being directed preeminently at impoverished
children of color in the urban classroom.


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