Tech, connect, and marshmallows, or, how long till you eat?

Yesterday’s New York Times ran an article about the effect technology can have on families (Breakfast Can Wait.  The Day’s First Stop is Online).

You can imagine the examples: “All four of us starting the day on four computers in four separate rooms,” says one parent.  A fourteen-year-old “went from walking the family Labradoodle for 20 minutes each morning to only briefly letting the dog outside” — and blames Facebook (and the peer connections it delivers).

The Times article seems an apt companion to a New Yorker article: Don’t! (subtitle: the secret of self-control).  Based on experiments he conducted at Stanford with young children, Walter Mischel believes a child’s ability to postpone eating a marshmallow was a good predictor of things like the ability to plan, maintain friendships, and do well in school.

Now wait just a second...Marshmallows?

The experiment involved nursery school children.  A child picked a treat (like a marshmallow or a cookie).  The experimenter made an offer: you can eat the one treat now, or, if you wait while I’m gone, you can have two when I return.

Once the experimenter left, the child could also ring a bell, which would bring the experimenter back.  (My guess is that this allowed the child to put an end to what must have felt like endless waiting.)

What happened?

[The typical child] struggled to resist the treat and held out for an average of less than threde minutes….About thirty per cent…successfully delayed gratification til the researcher returned, some fifteen minutes later.

Mischel’s conclusion is that the crucial skill for these “delayers” was ” the strategic allocation of attention.”  They found ways to distract themselves from the treat.

“What’s interesting about four-year-olds is that they’re just figuring out the rules of thinking,” Mischel says.  “The kids who couldn’t delay would often have the rules backwards.  They would think that the bst way to resist the marshmallow is to stare right at it, to keep a close eye on the goal.  But that’s a terrible idea.  If you do that, you’re going to ring the bell before I leave the room.”

Mischel and others are currently on a new study on whether self-control skills can be taught — a form of metacognition, a way to help children manage their own behavior.  Last year, for the charter-school organization KIPP, Mischel and Angela Lee Duckworth are currently working at this.  They find significant improvements in things like the ability to deal with “hot emotional states,” though they’re cautious about claiming any long-term results yet.

This TED talk by Joachim de Posada deals with those Stanford experiments.  As he says, “To tell a four-year-old kind to wait 15 minutes for something they like is equivalent to tell us, ‘We’ll bring you coffee in two hours.”

I can imagine a whole trademarked line of “Don’t Eat the Marshmallow” stuff, and in fact there are books and seminars.  What I’m more interested in is how solid the connection may be, and how people can build their ability to delay.

My image adapted from two CC-licensed photos:
A stopwatch by casey.marshall and marshmallows by John-Morgan.