A marshmallow of success

Forty years ago researchers tested children’s ability to delay gratification. The assistant would bring the child into a room full of tasty treats and invite him/her to pick out any desert she/he wanted. However, once the child had his hands (and mind) wrapped around the treat – such as a marshmallow – a deal was posed:

“If you can wait 15 minutes, I’ll come back and give you two treats instead of one.”

It turns out there were dramatic differences in kids’ abilities to wait for the treat, and that these differences correlated very well with later success in life as adults.

I showed this article to my wife Heather. She asked, “won’t you cuddle with me?”

“Sure, after you read this.”

She started reading. A few minutes later came the outburst, “Six pages! I hate internet articles like this!”

I’m sure Heather and I both belong to the “high delayer” group. We both have PhDs, lead a healthy lifestyle, and come from families with none of the behavioral problems associated with the kids who were unable to sit on their hands for 15 minutes to earn that marshmallow of success.

“I have to read all six pages?” she asked again after the 2nd page of the web article.

But I also worry that people like us who grew up as your typical “high-delayers” are now turning into low delayers. Our society provides too much constant stimulation. Everything is free now (as the Gillian Welch song goes). I’d bet that today’s “high delayers” would no longer wait 15 minutes, since everything in life is delivered in 7 minute chunks, divided by commercial breaks.

Although it was a great read, neither of us finished reading the article. I’m already writing about it on my blog. Heather is “sick of looking at the computer” even though she’d spent a half-hour on facebook unaware of this sickness until I asked her to do something that felt like “work.” Reading the New Yorker, that is. She’ll probably burn through a hundred pages of her book, Born to Run later without a problem. I won’t. I’m too interested in playing computer strategy games from the early ‘90s on my PC. Tonight my brother and sister are probably playing a fancy new massively multiplayer online game (MMOG).

Maybe we lack the attention to really notice that we lack attention.

Maybe I didn’t even notice my last two sentences are redundant. It brings to mind a statement from one of my favorite games, Nethack:

You feel foolish! You haven’t been paying attention.

There’s a relevant TED talk by David Perry about the way society is being transformed by a different social norm for attention span. But it still makes me wonder if we’re paying attention to what’s happening to us.

NPR covered a 2011 PNAS article about the long term sociological effects of kids who start out with low self-control. The bad news is that these kids grow up to become drug addicts, criminals, and poor at managing personal finance. The good news is that self-control can be taught at an early age and these bad effects are nullified.

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