Thursday, May 14, 2009
Don't drink that marshmallow
The marshamallow experiments are famous by now, thanks in large part to Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence books, and their relevance to addiction seems obvious. In 1968, Stanford psychology prof Walter Mischel presented four-year olds with a marshmallow and the choice: Eat it now, or wait 15 minutes and get two. The kids who could delay the gratification ended up, a decade and more later, with higher SAT scores, higher graduation rates, better jobs -- in short, twice as many of the marshmallows life had to offer.
It was often believed that the kids who could delay gratification did so thanks to more "will power." Mischel -- according to a helpful and informative summary in this week's New Yorker, by Jonah Lehrer -- analyzed what this "will power" really consisted of. He paid very careful attention to what went through the delaying kids' minds as they resisted the bait. They succeeded because they had methods of distracting their minds from the lure. They covered their eyes, or played hide-and-seek under the desk, or sang songs. "Their desire wasn't defeated -- it was merely forgotten." The key, Mischel found, was not to resist the marshmallow -- that didn't work --- but to avoid thinking about it.
In further experiments, Mischel found that children could be taught cognitive tricks that helped them distract themselves. Even reducing the intensity of the temptation by pretending that the marshmallow was only a picture of a marshmallow or that the marshmallow was really a cloud worked for some children.
Mischel and other researchers Lehrer quotes are skeptical of finding a genetic basis for the ability to delay gratification. Too many genes are involved in even the simplest aspects of personality. The cutting edge of research lies in classroom curricula that teach self-distraction, and in educating parents to cultivate simple cognitive skills in children. Says Mischel:
"We should give mashmallows to every kindergartner... We should say, 'You see this marshmallow" You don't have to eat it. You can wait. Here's how.'"