I just found this fascinating article that updates with longitudinal information on the group of kids tested in the somewhat famous “marshmallow test.” I heard of this test years ago, but had forgotten it, so in this first post I am just reviewing the test itself, which is really interesting.
The basic idea was to evaluate kids’ abilities to resist temptation. They were put (individually) in a room with a marshmallow and a bell. The researcher told the kid that they could eat the marshmallow, but that the researcher had to leave the room for 15 minutes, but if they would wait for the researcher to return, they could have TWO marshmallows. They were told if they didn’t wait, that was OK, just ring the bell and the researcher would hurry back and they could go ahead and eat the marshmallow. As the NYT article linked above states,
What, then, determined self-control? Mischel’s conclusion, based on hundreds of hours of observation, was that the crucial skill was the “strategic allocation of attention.” Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow—the “hot stimulus”—the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from “Sesame Street.” Their desire wasn’t defeated—it was merely forgotten. “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”
In adults, this skill is often referred to as metacognition, or thinking about thinking, and it’s what allows people to outsmart their shortcomings. (When Odysseus had himself tied to the ship’s mast, he was using some of the skills of metacognition: knowing he wouldn’t be able to resist the Sirens’ song, he made it impossible to give in.) Mischel’s large data set from various studies allowed him to see that children with a more accurate understanding of the workings of self-control were better able to delay gratification. “What’s interesting about four-year-olds is that they’re just figuring out the rules of thinking,” Mischel says. “The kids who couldn’t delay would often have the rules backwards. They would think that the best way to resist the marshmallow is to stare right at it, to keep a close eye on the goal. But that’s a terrible idea. If you do that, you’re going to ring the bell before I leave the room.”
According to Mischel, this view of will power also helps explain why the marshmallow task is such a powerfully predictive test. “If you can deal with hot emotions, then you can study for the S.A.T. instead of watching television,” Mischel says. “And you can save more money for retirement. It’s not just about marshmallows.”
Interesting, right? I mean, anyone who has binged – or, more to the point, agonized over NOT binging, could benefit from thinking about “strategic allocation of attention.” In fact, if you review the pro-ana stuff on the interwebs, you will see that a key component of the cult of ana is to stay distracted. There are lists upon lists of how to distract yourself while your body devours itself from the inside. Frankly, it’s kind of creepy.
But that made me stop and think. I am a great “high delayer” when it comes to things like spending money or waiting for something to happen. Even though I don’t characterize myself as particularly patient (OK, the opposite) I am really pretty good at making decisions like no-TV-I-have-to-study – at least, now I am. Earlier, I talked about how I think that it is easier for me to do that when I think there is an associated COST – if I don’t do this, I will make a bad grade – versus something to GAIN – if I eat this, I won’t get skinnier, I will stay the same. And I am trying to use that kind of thinking: this is COSTING me the figure I want to have, the healthy lifestyle I want back, and so on. And it helps.
But this make me ponder that perhaps, PERHAPS it also has to do with the fact that when I think about delaying my gratification for food, I feel panicky. For instance, Ana tips like “do jumping jacks, drink water, look at thinspo” all make me feel creepy, panicky and desperate. And I realize, that’s because I associate feeling HUNGRY with really bad things happening. Blood sugar crashes. Fights and emotional “scenes” – all part of my childhood when my mom’s bG dropped, which it did a LOT. Hunger to me is monumentally unpleasant – not just physically, but psychologically.
I never thought about that before, but it is very true – in fact, it’s probably key to why packets work so well for me. On Medifast, I know that I am getting doctor approved nutrition and balanced carbs/protein so my bG will not drop. Empirically, it actually works. For instance, right now, it is 12:52 and I am hungry, but I am not due for another packet until 1:00 or 2:00, preferably closer to 2:00. Here is what hungry feels like: just below my ribs, my stomach feels burny. My whole body has tightened up, especially my breathing (chest), my shoulders, and my throat. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize the tightness is most pronounced in my throat. Like I am trying to hold in something. I’m going to try relaxing all those muscles and see what happens.
Wow. That’s hard to do, and even harder to maintain, but while I manage it, the unpleasantness of the feeling goes away. But the panicky feeling gets more pronounced.
Hmmm. Maybe I resist delaying my food gratification because part of my does NOT think that is a very good idea. In fact, when I say to myself “what’s the issue with being hungry” I get the IMMEDIATE response “You’ll get sick.” That’s a lot to think about.
The new study, which I am going to talk about in my next post, brought in these same kids to see what effects there had been in their lives, and whether they were still “low delayers.” Stay tuned!