Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Don't Stare at the Marshmallow

There is a classic psychology experiment with young children. From Wikipedia:

The Stanford marshmallow experiment was a study on deferred gratification conducted in 1972 by psychologist Walter Mischel of Stanford University. A marshmallow was offered to each child. If the child could resist eating the marshmallow, he was promised two instead of one. The scientists analyzed how long each child resisted the temptation of eating the marshmallow, and whether or not doing so was correlated with future success....

In over 600 children who took part in the experiment, a minority ate the marshmallow immediately. Of those who attempted to delay, one third deferred gratification long enough to get the second marshmallow.

It was the results of the follow-up study that would take place many years later that surprised Mischel. [He] discovered there existed an unexpected correlation between the results of the marshmallow test, and the success of the children many years later.

The first follow-up study, in 1988, showed that "preschool children who delayed gratification longer in the self-imposed delay paradigm, were described more than 10 years later by their parents as adolescents who were significantly more competent". A second follow-up study, in 1990, showed that the ability to delay gratification also correlated with higher SAT scores.

A 2011 study of the same participants indicates that the characteristic remains with the person for life.
As one who works with a population that needs to deal with cravings on a regular basis whether they realize it or not, this experiment has a great deal of information of use. One of the things that made a difference in resisting the marshmallow was how they dealt with the temptation. Aside from those with no impulse control who grabbed the marshmallow immediately, the group that had the greatest difficulty as I understand it was the ones who sat and stared at the marshmallow trying to wait it out.

Staring at the object of one's temptation while trying to avoid temptation just wasn't a good idea.

Which is what I often tell people about their addictions/alcoholism- don't notice how many people around you in a restaurant are drinking, pay attention to how many people are NOT drinking. Don't sit facing the bar, turn your back on it. Don't have alcohol in the house; you might as well be staring at it.

Yet it is amazing that some of these people disagree with me. They believe they are strong enough to deal with it. Oh if that were only true. The ability to delay gratification (aka, resist temptation) may be harder than it looks for many people. One other more recent bit of information from the ongoing follow-up of the original Stanford Marshmallow Experiment participants:
Additionally, brain imaging showed key differences between the two groups in two areas: the prefrontal cortex (more active in high delayers) and the ventral striatum (an area linked to addictions).
In other words, there may very well be something genetic that we have to deal with about the ability to delay gratification, or, perhaps just as likely, those who have been unable to delay gratification weaken that part of the brain that allows one to delay gratification. Not being able to wait for gratification may feed on itself and make it even more difficult.

In any case, to anyone attempting to resist temptation, the best advice is stay away from the object of the temptation. Move away from it, distract yourself, get occupied in something else.

In other words (remember this), don't stare at the marshmallow.


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