The Myth of the Supertrait Ⅱ- Woodmam

The four classes of students who counted their blessings didn’t experience more gratitude than the control group—not during the two-week exercise, immediately after, or three weeks later. The journal writing simply didn’t have the intended effect. At all stages, the three classes in the control group—which did nothing but take the mood questionnaires—experienced the most gratitude of the three groups. As a result, the kids who did the exercise weren’t friendlier or more helpful to their friends. They didn’t have greater all-around life satisfaction.

Strangely, though, these lackluster results didn’t slow down the excitement around Froh’s study. The gratitude journal sounded like exactly the sort of exercise kids should do. Everyone involved wanted it to work and fully expected it to work. With that kind of momentum built up, everyone was predisposed to consider the intervention a success, no matter what the data determined.

The study results were published in a notable journal. Candlewood Middle School itself was so happy with the exercise that the administrators had all the thousand-plus students repeat it.

Newspapers then wrote feature stories about Froh’s study, clearly creating the impression that his study had effectively reproduced the results of Emmons’ studies on college students. In none of the articles was there a single mention about the flimsiness of the results. A year later, when Thanksgiving rolled around again—triggering a new round of coverage—these same claims were repeated.

One explanation for the press accounts could be the distraction created by the data on the alternative control group—the four classes who dwelled on the negative every day. Not surprisingly, those kids looked a little worse, statistically, than the other groups. But there was scant evidence that writing in the gratitude journal improved one’s well-being more than doing nothing. The only thing the study proved was that dwelling on the negative can bum you out.

Why were the results so different from Emmons’ work on college students?

Froh wasn’t sure, and he was troubled. He set the quantitative analysis aside, to go reread the kids’ actual diary entries. Quickly, he realized that a fair number of the middle schoolers suffered gratitude fatigue.

“They wrote the same thing, day after day—‘my dog, my house, my family,’ ” Froh recalled. “In hindsight, it might have been ideal for the teachers to encourage the kids to vary their answers, think harder, and really process it—rather than let them complete it in a hurry so they could get back to their classwork.”

He realized his next experiment would have to address this.

At first glance, Froh’s study appears to be another classic case where good intentions were mistaken for a good idea. But his story didn’t end there.

For Froh to really figure out what happened, he needed to drop two of his main assumptions.

First, he had to drop his expectation that middle schoolers should react the same way as college students to the gratitude intervention. As long as he held that expectation, he was thinking that something had gone wrong in his study—and that if he could find his error, he could get the intended result.

But maybe nothing had gone wrong. Maybe he’d made no mistakes, and his results were completely accurate. And because he wasn’t thinking broadly enough, he was unable to glean what his results actually proved.

There are eight years of development from middle school to college. Was there something about those intervening years that could explain why the middle-schoolers didn’t benefit from the exercise? As we learned from Nancy Darling’s research on teenagers, the need for autonomy peaks at age 14, and is stronger in a 12-year-old than in a college student (largely because a college student has already established the autonomy she desires). Were the middle-schoolers reacting differently, because of their need for independence?

Or could it be a difference in cognitive capabilities? Digging deeper into gratitude’s effects, Froh learned that children will not experience gratitude unless they recognize three things about the various bounties in their lives: that they are intentional, costly, and beneficial. Children need to comprehend that this nice life of theirs isn’t by accident, it’s the gift of hardworking parents and teachers who make sacrifices for the good of children—who in turn truly benefit from it.

Were younger kids capable of understanding all that?
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