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Cookie Monster v. Mr. Stay Puft

May 11, 2009

Another interesting article in the New Yorker this week, although I disagree with the conclusions of the research.  It’s by Jonah Lehrer, author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist, which I wrote up here a while ago.  It details research on the difference between those who can delay gratification and those who can’t, through the lens of the “marshmallow test” as performed with young children:

A researcher then made [a then four year old] Carolyn an offer: she could either eat one marshmallow right away or, if she was willing to wait while he stepped out for a few minutes, she could have two marshmallows when he returned. He said that if she rang a bell on the desk while he was away he would come running back, and she could eat one marshmallow but would forfeit the second…About thirty per cent of the children…successfully delayed gratification until the researcher returned, some fifteen minutes later. These kids wrestled with temptation but found a way to resist.

[Dr.] Mischel…noticed that low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.

There’s no doubt of the differences in accomplishment and happiness between those who can persist and those who can’t, but my objection is to the reasons the researchers think why some children can delay and some can’t.

[A] team of collaborators began asking the original Bing subjects to travel to Stanford for a few days of experiments in an fMRI machine…The scientists are hoping to identify the particular brain regions that allow some people to delay gratification and control their temper.They’re also conducting a variety of genetic tests, as they search for the hereditary characteristics that influence the ability to wait for a second marshmallow.

For all the talk of genetic markers and brain wiring, it seems to me that environmental conditioning, more than anything else, would be the formative experiences that divided the “high delayers” from the “low delayers.”  The article talks about how Dr. Mischel ran the experiment in the Caribbean, to see if West Indian or African-descended children responded differently: “[O]ther variables, such as whether or not the children lived with their father, turned out to be much more important” than whether they were in the African-descent group (described by the East Indians as “impulsive hedonists”) or the East Indian group (described by the Africans as people who “didn’t know how to live and would stuff money in their mattress and never enjoy themselves”).

Moreover, as I learned from the book Loneliness and as I wrote here on the “cookie test,” the ability of people to assert “executive control” can depend on something as simple as being told before the test that nobody likes you.  (If you don’t care to click thru, the gist of it was that people who were hired to “test” cookies and then told that nobody wanted to work with them ate twice as many of the cookies as those who were told everybody wanted to work with them, and that therefore to be fair they had to be asked to work alone.) 

So while the researchers go looking for “genetic markers” and running fMRIs, even though their own evidence told them that things like absent fathers could be important co-factors, they may be missing the real causes.  For instance, when they discuss how poor kids perform on the test,

[W[hen Mischel gave delay-of-gratification tasks to children from low-income families in the Bronx, he noticed that their ability to delay was below average, at least compared with that of children in Palo Alto. “When you grow up poor, you might not practice delay as much,” he says. “And if you don’t practice then you’ll never figure out how to distract yourself. You won’t develop the best delay strategies, and those strategies won’t become second nature.”

To me, this is one of those Gordian Tomapple moments – it would seem blazingly obvious that the reason a poor kid might not “practice delay” is because, in an environment (i.e. poverty) where resources are scarce and competition is high, the likelihood is that if you let the marshmallow sit there, someone else is going to eat it. You can’t predicate your experiment on an environment that makes false assumptions about the subject’s world view. The children in the Stanford preschool probably (given the demographics of Palo Alto) come from a state of plenty – their house is never out of marshmallows. This affects their ability to think more about the next marshmallow, because they believe in its existence, that it will be there for them when they want it.

Moreover, the article discusses that:

Mischel is particularly excited by the example of the substantial subset of people who failed the marshmallow task as four-year-olds but ended up becoming high-delaying adults. “This is the group I’m most interested in,” he says. “They have substantially improved their lives.”

So, it’s genetic, or it’s wired in the brain…and yet a substantial subset learn to change?  This suggests to me that the “delay” function is “soft wired,” rather than “hard wired,” and therefore more a result of experiences – the experiences that make you grab the marshmallow, and the experiences that teach you to wait.  Then again, if it’s possible to overwrite our brain’s genetic patterning and remake ourselves at will, that would be wonderful news.

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