Off the Couch

Pass the marshmallows

My colleague has kindly placed a bowl of Easter eggs in our reception, and every time I walk past it I have to stop myself, with varying degrees of success, from popping one in my mouth.  It’s amazing how quickly it becomes a habit, and not a helpful one.  In my weaker moments I’m sure I would have failed the marshmallow test.

What’s the marshmallow test?  (Click here to hear me chat with Tony Murrell on Radio Live about the marshmallow test).  Well it’s one of the more famous psychology experiments, carried out initially at Stanford University in the sixties.  (Click here for more information)

Take a group of 4  year old kids and place them in a room.  The experimenter then explains she needs to leave the room for a while, and offers them one marshmallow (or chocolate, pretzel, etc.) which is sitting on the table in front of them, OR two if they can wait and not eat the single marshmallow, until she returns.  She leaves for 15 minutes and the kids are filmed and observed via a one way mirror.  This experiment has been duplicated hundreds of times, in different cultures around the world and fairly consistently about two thirds eat the marshmallow, a small minority immediately, and the other third successfully delay gratification and are rewarded with the second marshmallow.

There have been criticisms and some studies questioning the outcomes, particularly recently looking at the role of socio-economic class, race and how that influences trust in the experimenter, but the really consistent bit is what happens to that 33{1b812f7ed7a77644fff58caf46676f6948311bf403a3d395b7a7f87010507f87} as they grow up.

You see the test is almost diagnostic.  That 33{1b812f7ed7a77644fff58caf46676f6948311bf403a3d395b7a7f87010507f87} have been tracked and tested later in life and…

“Follow-up studies on these preschoolers found that those who were able to wait the 15 minutes were significantly less likely to have problems with behavior, drug addiction or obesity by the time they were in high school, compared with kids who gobbled the snack in less than a minute. The gratification-delayers also scored an average of 210 points higher on the SAT.” (Click here for the whole article)

What researchers also found was that some kids had some creative strategies to control themselves while the researchers were out of the room.  The most effective seemed to centre around using the mind or behaviour to distract from the treat or to distance it in some way.

For example covering their eyes, imagining the marshmallow as a cloud not a treat or imagining a picture frame around the desired food.  All these techniques, and others, resulted in a cooling of the emotions of desire of wanting the treat.  They are also very cute to watch:

It also suggests that self control is a skill that can be learnt.

One of the key things to learn is how to cool and distance oneself from emotional responses and impulses of desire.  The one third seem to just have that ability, and the small minority who eat the marshmallow immediately don’t.  Of the rest though longtitudinal studies show that some people also get better at this over the course of life.

We also know that mindfulness is a really effective way to cool emotional responses and decrease impulsivity.  When used in addictions it is generally referreed to as “urge surfing”: the idea that if we can become accustomed to just watching an urge it will peak and diminish, just like a wave.

So by all means enjoy some chocolate this Easter.  But you might want to mediate too, or at least eat that cream egg mindfully.

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