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?

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

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