November 12, 2012

Brains and Marshmallows

So I was over at Dr. J's place recently and discovered there was an update to the famous marshamllow study.

Remember that? Researchers put young children in a room with a marshmallow and told them if they could wait 15 or 20 minutes and not eat it, they could have 2 marshmallows instead of just one. They timed how long kids could hold out--generally about 6 minutes, but some gobbled it up quickly and others held out much longer, up until the entire time length.

Follow-up studies as the kids got older showed that the ability to wait longer was correlated with greater self-confidence and interpersonal skills, higher SAT scores, less likelihood of substance abuse, and the ability to go to Costco on a Saturday and not eat 35,000 calories worth of free samples.

OK, I can't quite find a source for that last one. I may be remembering that wrong.

Anyway, the implications are that self-control is a fairly stable aspect of personality over the course of life, and that it leads to success on a variety of fronts. 

I always loved reading about the marshmallow study, because I was the kind of kid who would have sat there patiently with that single marshmallow until I was in a nursing home about to expire of old age.  Seriously, if that's what it would have taken to (a) get more sugar, and (b) demonstrate to the adults in the room what a very very good little girl I was? I would have kicked marshmallow ass.

Well, if you haven't seen it already over at Dr. J's, there was a twist to the latest update that sparked a major epiphany for me. That's right, a mental shift of the sort that leads to insipid journal entries and tedious blog posts.   Lucky readers!

But what about the "brains" part of the post?  Well, I love to talk about brains, and not just because of my propensity to work in totally gratuitous brain-eating references in otherwise zombie-deficient blog posts.

Sorry, there are no zombie studies reported here.
But I'm guessing they wouldn't hold out for a second brain.

So what is the study twist, and the major f--cking epiphany it led to, and what does this all have to do with brains?

This time, Celeste Kidd and other folks at the University of Rochester did their marshmallow study update with the addition of a new variable: environmental reliability. That is to say, how likely is it that a child who waits for an expected reward will, in fact, actually be rewarded?

It's a clever experiment, and you can read the details at the link above or watch the cute video re-enactment which I also swiped from Dr. J:

But the bottom line is: if you put kids in an unreliable environment, they don't hold out very long for the marshmallow. When researchers kept their previous promises to kids, they waited much longer.

So as Dr. J points out, there are practical implications of this for shoring up our own adult willpower.  Keep promises to yourself! Or you can create an environment where there are a lot of healthy "treats" reliably on hand (whether edible or not) so that you don't grab at the first passing Krispy Kreme out of a sense of gotta-have-it-now neediness.

Now normally I'd go on to create a list of 20 more tips to capitalize on this, but screw it. Pragmatic applications weren't the source of my "aha!" moment. (Or, more accurately, my "oh crap, duh!" moment. I rarely say "aha" to myself).

It was this, which I can't put any better than the researchers did in their paper:

"Consider the mindset of a 4-year old living in a crowded shelter, surrounded by older children with little adult supervision. For a child accustomed to stolen possessions and broken promises, the only guaranteed treats are the ones you have already swallowed. At the other extreme, consider the mindset of an only-child in a stable home whose parents reliably promise and deliver small motivational treats for good behavior. From this child’s perspective, the rare injustice of a stolen object or broken promise may be so startlingly unfamiliar that it prompts an outburst of tears."

So here I'd been feeling smug all these years for being the kind of kid who would wait forever for that second marshmallow.  And I was also exactly that second kid described above, who would burst into tears at the hint of any injustice. My environment was so reliable and rewarding that exceptions seemed outrageous and intolerable.

And yet how many times have I felt a scornful sense of disapproval of those who tend to gobble up life's "marshmallows" right away?  All too often!

Just think of all the shitty life circumstances that could lead to a grab-it-now world view, where life is not fair, effort rarely leads to rewards, and self-improvement efforts are doomed. Even when the environment has changed and has nothing to do with current reality, that kind of experience can be a powerful unconscious factor in decisions about effort and reward.  Those of us who have never spent much time in that sort of unreliable environment should think hard before passing judgment on the "weakness" of others. (Note: this is basic Empathy 101, not rocket science.  Yet I how often do I forget to think this way?  All the time!).

I don't know precisely why the 400lb woman is eating a sundae with 5 scoops of ice cream or why the homeless person with the "I'm hungry please help" sign just took the $5 someone handed him and went straight to the liquor store.

But I do know I have a tendency to shake my head and feel all judgey about it.  And I think maybe I gotta stop that.

Of course I still think exercising personal responsibility is virtuous and difficult and people should be helped and encouraged to do so and feel mighty darn pleased with themselves whenever they do!  Willpower is not about morality; it's about skillful use of a lot of strategies.  And it's something you can build on, over time and with patience and determination.  But self-control failures may be complicated and personal, and I gotta remember that these should be met with compassion and help, not with a smug sense of superiority and judgment.

And hey, on the theme of compassion...

The Compassionate Brain

Here's where the Brains come in!

So remember when I was talking about being a quitter and horse corpses and my favorite brainy self-improvement guru-geek Rick Hanson?  You may recall I mentioned he was doing a free online series called The Compassionate Brain. It's a bunch of interviews with prominent experts on compassion and neuroplasticity, or, how you can change your brain to "open the heart, build courage, find compassion, forgive oneself and others, and heal the world."  Cool, huh?

Anyway, the interviews are now under way, and the first few are archived so you can watch 'em any time. I highly recommend in particular the one with Kelly McGonigal, who, speaking of waiting for marshmallows, is an expert on willpower.  She's got lots of smart things to say about it during the interview, which is generally about "Balancing Compassion and Assertiveness."

And tonight's interview with Kristin Neff, on self-compassion and not beating yourself up sounds very promising as well.

So what do you guys think about willpower, environmental reliability, compassion, marshmallows, or zombies?

Marshmallow:  katerha
Zombie lunch: anticitizen seven
Compassion: couldn't find original source, anyone seen it?


  1. Hmm, I don't have much to contribute as my brain is a marshmallow this morning. But... I wonder where one draws the distinction between willpower and denial? I didn't follow any links so if that's covered, then I really ought to start paying more attention. Could be double the rewards if I did!

    1. I definitely suffer from frequent marshmallow-brain syndrome myself, particularly if I haven't had my coffee! Always great to have you stop by, and as a long-time regular you are exempt from following any links.

  2. My question is what about the kids who, like me, would behave not because the reward came so often that the occasional injustice was taken hard, but because to not do so, whether the reward was coming or not, meant severe penalty?

    Gads, now i'm mucking up your very good insight!

    1. Oh wow, that's a definitely a compassion-generating question! I'm sure I'veread studies saying that a harsh authoritarian parenting style can have negative repercussions, but my gut feeling says that resilient people like you who weather it and thrive often have great empathy for those in difficult circumstances. (whether human or feline!)

  3. Thanks so much, Crabby! You are the only thief that I would gladly put the welcome sign out for!

    I'm glad you have the video. It just makes one smile!

    I bet all researchers wished they could do enjoyable as well as useful studies like this one!

    1. Thanks Dr. J! You often post theft-worthy content, thanks for letting me rip you off!

  4. To be honest, marshmallows are disgusting, and you could have put the kid me in a room full of them and I would gladly have gone hungry indefinitely rather than eat them. Same holds true today. But I understand that is not the point. ;) What has been a key role in my weight loss and maintenance is to carefully evaluate every urge to eat (Am I *really* hungry? Or just bored? And if the answer is "no," then go on to, "Is it time to fuel up for my workout later/Am I just home from a workout and need to recover?" only then would the next step be to eat something) and carefully evaluate EVERY BITE I eat, no lie (Is a spoonful of peanut butter really worth it right now, when I could eat two cups of vegetables for a better result?). Maybe most people don't need to be THAT strict and analytical with themselves, but *I* do. I read something the other day about delayed gratification and wants vs. needs that was very interesting. If your brain is going STARBUCKS STARBUCKS STARBUCKS and you give in to the mental craving and say I'M GOING TO STARBUCKS! Then you get to Starbucks and the line is 15 people deep and you decide NOT to waste 25 minutes in line and $8 on a stale pastry baked in a factory 500 miles away several days ago, about TWO MINUTES LATER you will realize you didn't really need it after all. If you had TRULY NEEDED the Starbucks, you would have endured the inconvenience, time waste and expense the same way a drug addict will travel miles, steal money and wait around for her dealer. If you really truly NEEDED the Starbucks, you would stand in line forever only to be humiliated by a cooler-than-though hipster who reeked of patchouli oil in order to get your stupid cookie. So apply that thought as a preventative measure and you will save yourself a LOT of bad food decisions!

    1. OMG Norma that was hilarious!

      And excellent point about postponing those gotta-have-it cravings because so often if one can "ride the wave" they disappear.

      You are an excellent role model for the notion that Willpower can actually consist of a set of clever sneaky behavior modification tools!

    2. "Ride the wave" is exactly the term they used in the story that used Starbucks' long line as an example. Really made so much retrospective sense for me. Another good tip a lot of people use is "the apple test": if they think they're hungry (when they know they really have no reason to be), is to have their only food option be an apple. If they "don't feel like" having an apple, that means they're not really hungry, and they have some water.

    3. Another excellent tip Norma!

      For some reason, chicken soup is my apple. Because I can think I want an apple even if I'm not all that hungry. Chicken soup... that needs actual hunger to appeal to me.

  5. Ah I struggle with the right moment or thought processes for compassion and butt kicking and judginess. For myself and for others.

    I am working on it though. Although I find it way easier to detect the right and wrongs of the triad in my husband than myself - Smirkola.

    Ah... if we were all perfect we would choose an apple over the cookie, would be virtuous in all things... including thought. But don't those people annoy us? Yup. Don't lie. They do.

    Maybe the key is to embrace foibles - especially our own. A La Charlie Brown.

    Sincerely Zen Munchberry Foo.

    1. Ooh, I like that spin on it! And I got so many foibles to embrace I need an extra set of arms!

  6. I read Dr. J's post & loved it. I had read the original study in a book I reviewed but now can't remember either - I am blaming age! ;) I know for me, the wait thing works.. as an adult. I do make myself think 10-15 minutes if I want to eat something I really know I don't need and/or I am not even hungry for... but as a child hard to say.....

    But as you continue about "judging others", I hate to say that I do this more than I should as much as I know - I love your thoughts on this & making us think about it too! I do continually try not to judge but I am not perfect & not even close! ;)

    1. Well don't judge YOURSELF too harshly 'cause we're all only human! And I see you doing a lot of educating folks on your blog without coming across as judgmental at all.

  7. I actually have never cared for marshmallows. Weird, I know.

    However, I grew up in a house where treats were shared out equally and you didn't just go help yourself because they weren't every day options. Then I married a man who grew up in a house with two brothers and went on to join the military; his philosophy tends to be 'eat it now because it might not be there later.' It took a bit of getting used to. That last brownie that I'm thinking would be a nice treat after I finish my workout? Probably won't be there if I don't hide it.

    1. Interesting to see how that shifts perspective Javachick! But sounds like you go with the sensible "hide" option rather than the greedy "gobble it up" one, so I'm guessing you're still pretty much a "wait for 2 marshmallows" kind of gal.

  8. This is my favorite study of all time - glad to see an update to it.

    I too gag at the 'mallo.

    1. And they weren't even roasted and slapped on top of chocolate and graham crackers!

      Damn, now I want a s'more...

  10. Great, interesting post.

    Makes me worry about myself and my ADD tainted mothering though...

    1. Eh, Larkspur, I say if you're basically benevolent and consistently inconsistent, no harm done!

  11. Interesting to see you explore a more expansive view of things in this post. When money is in short, inconstant supply, the way to get the special things you want is not to save up for them, but to get them right when you have a little extra cash. It's not a middle-class perspective, but it makes some sense in the context of being poor and in an unstable environment.

    1. Good point Mary! And yet, how many times have I made judgements about people who seem illogical and impulsive about how they spend money? It never really occurred to me that many don't trust that they will EVER get what they want by the conventional "work hard and save up" method, because that hasn't been their experience. Work hard, get laid off... not quite the same thing.


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