Here are links related to a few interesting studies that came up in a discussion with Ross. I figured I’d post them here so I have somewhere to point other people:
Marshmallows and Delayed Gratification
Walter Mischel did a study where he put children in a room, gave them single marshmallow, and told them that if they held off from eating the marshmallow for a while they would get two marshmallows later. He then left the room and watched via hidden camera to see how long they would hold out. Several years later, he happened to do a follow-up study on the same kids, and discovered that the time they held out was strongly correlated to their grades, whether they went to college, SAT scores, etc. Here are some links:
Racial and Gender Achievement Gaps
Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson did a study where they gave the GRE exam to African Americans and European American students. The two groups performed at roughly the same level. However, if they told the students they were taking an intelligence test, the black students performed significantly worse. There are a lot of variant of this experiment for different kinds of tests or gaps (physical activities, gender, etc.) with similar results. I.e., you can dramatically change test scores by saying or not saying a single particular sentence to the test takers before the test.
I agree with Dan Ariely that these studies can and should be interpreted extremely optimistically. If the driving factors behind success or failure are this simple or fragile, we should be able to find easy ways to make huge improvements.