The Frontal Cortex

Self-Control Questions

Over at the New Yorker website, I’ve answered a few questions from readers about the marshmallow task:

Do you think the future results of success would be different for a sample of kids born in the twenty-first century considering the decades of behavioral, economical changes in the society?
Hassan Patwary
San Jose, Calif.

I think it would be hard to replicate the marshmallow task now, if only because it’s gotten much tougher to feed hundreds of preschoolers sugary snacks in the name of science. There are allergies, peculiar diets, and all sorts of food issues. So you’d have to find something else that little kids want to wait for, be it plastic figurines or poker chips.

My guess, though, is that you wouldn’t get different results with twenty-first-century children. (The scientists agree.) I think the challenge of self-control is a perdurable feature of human nature and isn’t particularly influenced by the toys of the age, be it Legos or Nintendo. Parenting fads come and go, but waiting is hard work. It always has been and always will.

However, if there were observable differences between the performance of kids in 1968 and 2009, I’d probably blame boredom. One thing that struck me while watching the videos of the four-year-olds is that the experiment was really tedious. These little kids were asked to sit in a bare room with nothing to do but stare at a marshmallow. Part of what the scientists were measuring, then, was how children reacted to the state of being bored. Could they come up with inventive ways of entertaining themselves? Were they able to lose track of time in a daydream, or start an interesting conversation with an imaginary friend?

I’ve got no good evidence for this, but I sometimes wonder if little kids today are less able to tolerate the absence of stimulation. After all, why suffer through boredom when there’s a television with three hundred channels and a computer with an endless supply of arcade games? There’s just so much possible entertainment, so why not be entertained?

The problem, though, is that self-stimulation skills are learned through practice–it’s not easy inventing a pretend playmate–and if the child is used to turning on the television when bored then maybe he’ll find it harder to delay gratification when there’s no TV. But that’s just rampant speculation.


  1. #1 Milt Lee
    May 23, 2009

    Being of an age when we didn’t have TV growing up, I can speak a bit to you comment about finding it hard to self-stimulate. We played like crazy and pretended that stuff was…just about anything. I have 11 grandkids and I notice that when they are under 2 years old, they do the same thing, but when they grow older and start to see TV and video games, they stop playing by themselves. It’s really sad, and frankly I believe that the net result will be less creativity. I suppose in another 20 years, we will know the answer. I doubt that I will be around to see it, but there you are.

  2. #2 nathan
    May 23, 2009

    Always glad to see your writing showing up in places like the New Yorker. You’re performing a valuable public service out there in this current wasteland of hyperbolic science reporting.

    I wonder what the relationship is between the capacity for tolerating boredom (enjoying stillness?), and, conversely, adeptly navigating and parsing multiple mutually impinging streams of information. What stylistic trade-offs are we making, and why is it so damned tempting to crank the tv while we’re simultaneously trying to read a blog and check our email? Do we naturally tend toward information rich environments, or is it something about these specific sources of temptation?

  3. #3 Meryl
    May 24, 2009

    Self play may be genetically programmed? TV & Computer are accessible to my 4year-old, yet he gets bored with both,& resorts to self play eventually.

  4. #4 McApe
    May 24, 2009

    Anecdotal data is dubious, especially when self-reported by parents about their own kids, but we disconnected our TV when my son was a baby. We watched the occasional video on the VCR, but fairly limited, never had a game console. My son is 17 now and never acts bored. The thing about parenting, you never get to try it both ways, which is why twin studies are so valuable.

    I guess it would be hard to replicated the marshmallow study these days. You would probably have to arrange for the parents to bring their own treats which would make it a little harder to get a truly random sample.

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    May 25, 2009

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  6. #6 oldfuzz
    May 25, 2009

    Several questions come to mind:

    How will personality differences–e.g., introvert/extrovert, curious/passive, etc.–enter into the results?

    What will the future “global” culture require for “success” and how will people respond?

    In the fifties (I was a HS grad in ’56) parents–mine and my friends–had completed their formal education by their mid twenties. My generation could continue their education, as many did, into middle age and beyond. How will the current generation pursue knowledge?

    Thanks for the query.

  7. #7 McApe
    May 26, 2009

    “How will personality differences–e.g., introvert/extrovert, curious/passive, etc.–enter into the results?”

    Did you read the article?

    Mischel was critical of psychology’s reliance on personality traits back in the 60’s when he was consulting for the Peace Corps.

    Volunteers were tested for standard personality traits, and Mischel compared the results with ratings of how well the volunteers performed in the field. He found no correlation; the time-consuming tests predicted nothing. At this point, Mischel realized that the problem wasn’t the tests—it was their premise. Psychologists had spent decades searching for traits that exist independently of circumstance, but what if personality can’t be separated from context?

    I saw nothing in the article to indicate that he changed his mind on that.

    Personally, I’d like to hear more about Mischel’s criticism of personality trait based psychology. It makes a lot of sense to me. When taken to the extreme, personality trait based psych starts to reminds me altogether too much of horoscopes. Trying to separate personality from situation does seem like an oversimplification.
    Again, quoting Mischel from the article:

    “In general, trying to separate nature and nurture makes about as much sense as trying to separate personality and situation,” he says. “The two influences are completely interrelated.”

  8. #8 Rocketman
    May 26, 2009

    Back in the late 70’s / early 80’s, the principal of my Catholic grade school, Sister Andrea Rodgers O.S.B., was always encouraging us to play a “game” with ourselves. “Whenever you’re thirsty,” she would say, “see how long you can make yourself wait before getting a glass of water and then, when you’ve got your glass, see how long you can wait before taking a drink.”

    We just thought she was bonkers.

  9. #9 Donna
    May 27, 2009

    I just performed this test on my kids today (two four year old girls adopted from China a few years ago). The results were surprising.

    I really wasn’t sure how they’d respond because few 4 year olds are pillars of self control and restraint. But they did amazingly well. In fact, when the test was over, they weren’t sure it was really okay to eat the treats! Any other time, they’d have plowed them into their mouth with both hands!

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  11. #11 Jordan
    May 28, 2009

    I’d actually be very curious to see the results of the exact same test when compared between adults, teenagers, and preschoolers. I’m no scientist (yet), but I’d probably predict that as the person got older, they’d hesitate either much more: “Why is this person giving me a marshmallow? Obviously, they want me to wait… Or do they want me to think they want me to wait? Should I eat it? Oh screw it, it’ll go straight to my hips… Alright, but just one..” or much less: “Well, I don’t need two marshmallows, I can have as many as I want when I get home.”

    The only forseeable issue is a bunch of jerky teens trying to mess with the results. Which would be interesting to monitor, also, but would be a totally different test. Any other predictions?

  12. #12 Matthew Putman
    May 29, 2009

    I enjoyed your New Yorker article. I am sure that this is repeatable evidence, and is contemporary as well. The only thing about these kinds of studies, and I believe you point this out nicely, is that defining success is a difficult, and completely subjective thing to do. I fall into this trap all of the time, which can make me miserable. Perhaps the poor SAT scores etc, are actually an indication of impulsive creativity, which has a risk factor, but also a deeply satisfying reward potential built in.

  13. #13 Coturnix
    June 2, 2009

    You really need to send your readers to the The World Science forums ASAP, so people can ask questions and you can answer them in timely manner.

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