The Frontal Cortex

Marshmallows on the Radio

I was on On Point today with Walter Mischel, the subject of my recent New Yorker article. As usual, he was incredibly eloquent. One thing we both got a chance to emphasize was the plasticity of personality – as I mention in the article, Mischel has found a significant subset of subjects who, although they couldn’t wait for a second marshmallow as four-year olds, ended up becoming “high-delaying” adults. How’d they get better? Nobody quite knows. Nevertheless, this group is an important reminder that just because you’re an impulsive kid (and I certainly was) doesn’t mean you’re destined to always be impulsive.

Comments

  1. #1 G. Randolph Mayes
    May 13, 2009

    I really want to know to what extent impulsiveness in 4 year olds is a reflection of a domestic environment in which impulsiveness, as opposed to high-delay is rewarded. Do parents, e.g., who are inconsistent or arbitrary in their rewards and punishments, create an inherently unpredictable environment in which delay is simply an unreliable strategy? (i.e., get what you can now, because you never know how they will feel 5 minutes from now.)

  2. #2 Guy Danielson
    May 14, 2009

    I’m having some difficulty seeing the choice of when to eat a marshmallow as having much predictive value. I’m also not sure it merits placing them in categories, e.g. high-delaying vs. impulsive. I am hoping we don’t try to make our 4 year olds into one or the other.

  3. #3 TJ
    May 14, 2009

    The “present value” of something is always higher than its value in the future. So in economic terms, the value of one marshmallow now is higher than the value of one marshmallow 15 minutes from now. The cost/benefit analysis of 1 marshmallow now vs 2 marshmallows later is a bit closer than it might seem. Also, wouldn’t the amount of food already in the kid’s stomach be a big confounding factor? But I guess the predictive value of this test is undeniable.

  4. #4 jb
    May 14, 2009

    When I took education courses preparing to teach science in middle school, positive reinforcement was stressed as the being the most elegant, kind, and effective means to modify behavior in the classroom. This technique emphasizes reinforcing a behavior at the very moment it happens with something the student wants. If, for example, the teacher wants Johnny to ask more questions, she needs to do something that reinforces that when Johnny raises his hand. She can’t very well stop the class so she momentarily makes a mark in her rolebook or on a blackboard chart to let Johnny know she has noticed his behavior. Then at the end of the day or the end of the week, Johnny gets some sort of tangible reinforcer: extra computer time or recess, a new box of crayons, etc., something that Johnny wants based on how many checks there are on his chart.
    This is a form of delayed gratification. It is a useful technique to employ until the behavior being trained becomes self-reinforcing. This works with people and animals of all ages.
    I’m working with a meditation reinforcement biofeednack device that beeps and glows in response to a more “coherent”
    heart beat, a byproduct of using a basic meditation technique on a regular basis. To read more about this and the health benefits, see “Cardiac Coherence: A new non-invasive measure of autonomic system order” in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 1996;2(1):52-65.

  5. #5 jb
    May 14, 2009

    When I took education courses preparing to teach science in middle school, positive reinforcement was stressed as the being the most elegant, kind, and effective means to modify behavior in the classroom. This technique emphasizes reinforcing a behavior at the very moment it happens with something the student wants. If, for example, the teacher wants Johnny to ask more questions, she needs to do something that reinforces that when Johnny raises his hand. She can’t very well stop the class so she momentarily makes a mark in her rolebook or on a blackboard chart to let Johnny know she has noticed his behavior. Then at the end of the day or the end of the week, Johnny gets some sort of tangible reinforcer: extra computer time or recess, a new box of crayons, etc., something that Johnny wants based on how many checks there are on his chart.
    This is a form of delayed gratification. It is a useful technique to employ until the behavior being trained becomes self-reinforcing. This works with people and animals of all ages.
    I’m working with a meditation reinforcement biofeedback device that beeps and glows in response to a more “coherent”
    heart beat, a byproduct of using a basic meditation technique on a regular basis. To read more about this and the health benefits, see “Cardiac Coherence: A new non-invasive measure of autonomic system order” in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 1996;2(1):52-65.

  6. #6 Maureen McCormick
    May 14, 2009

    Jonah,

    Congratulations on the fine job on “On Point” and on the NYer article. I just happened to be reading this very chapter in “How We Decide.”

    Along with investigating how impulsive kids can grow up to be thoughtful mindful adults, there is another question that interests me: Why do individuals differ in their frustration tolerance in different situations?

    For example, there are plenty of people with advanced degrees (possible evidence of high frustration tolerance) who struggle with substance abuse and obesity (low tolerance). Likewise, there are those we know in the workplace who appear to be irritable and impulsive, yet with their spouse and children they are patient, playful and kind.

    Is frustration tolerance thus more a personality trait or a state-based behavior? Is this even the right question to ask? Is personality really as pervasive as we learned in intro psych? I think the power of the situation is often undervalued in the assessment of so-called personality. And I think that is part of Mischel’s point.

    Finally, what are the variables that influence frustration tolerance in everyday life? Stress, history of trauma, fatigue, experience in the particular situation (becoming anesthetized to it), and on and on.

    Thanks again for the article and the radio show. Nice job.

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