Sunday, May 17, 2009

Margin of Error

There's an article in this week's New Yorker, "Don't!", about an experiment and research program that was initiated in the 1960s in an attempt to survey self control in children and adults.

In its very beginning the experiment primarily set out to divide 4-year olds into "low delayers" and "high delayers" by placing them in front of a big tray full of marshmallows and cookies, presenting them with the option of having one treat right away, or two treats if they were able to wait a couple of minutes longer while the researcher stepped out of the room.

Some of the children simply ate the treat right away, some were able to wait for half a minute or so, and finally, about 30 percent of the kids were able to wait until the researcher returned about 15 minutes later. And these kids, of course, were gratified with a second treat.

Later, in the 1980s, when the kids were all grown up, the professor in charge of the experiment started sending out questionnaires to all the subjects, in an attempt to map out their achievements, personal problems, etc., and found that the low delayers, the kids that weren't able to put off eating their treat till the researcher returned, were more likely to do bad on tests, had trouble maintaining friendships, and had behavioral problems at home and at school. The high delayers, on the other hand exhibited a pattern characterized through and through by high performance.

At some point down the line, the researchers found that the ability to put off gratification (i.e. eating the so very tempting marshmallow) relies on the skill of metacognition, that is thinking about your own thinking and thus controlling what you think about. The high delayers, in short, were able to distract their thinking about the marshmallow by forcing themselves to think of something else when placed in front of the plate full of treats.

What particularly interested me in all this was one researcher's explanation for why, when testing grow ups for self-control, you have to mask what they're being tested for. If you don't, as he put it, "you'll get a bunch of people who refuse to touch their marshmallow".

And all this brought me to consider how I would myself have reacted if, as a 4-year old, I would have been placed in a room, alone, in front of plate full of treats. And not least, how I would managed my thinking about the sweets.

I think, for most of my life, I've been a textbook example of a high delayer, studying for exams when I was supposed to, writing papers before they were due. However, I know with 99% certainty, that had someone placed me, alone, in front of that tray full of treats, I would have delayed eating the treat not in the hope of getting a second one when the researcher returned, but simply to feign disinterest in what was being offered to me. I was a highly suspicious child, I remember. Always en guard, somehow. And I think, that had I been placed in front of that tray of sweets, I would have been so acutely aware that I was being tested. I also know with 99 % certainty that I would have declined to have any sweets at all once the researcher returned and I was duly entitled to have two sweets instead of one.

In fact, unless it ha been my own parents who had offered the sweets to me, I suspect I would have downright refused to eat them, even though I would have felt insanely tempted. But it would have been more important to me to convey "I'm not that easy" to the researcher. Or "you don't own me, sucker". My point is, my gratification would consist in sporting that defiance. Not in the prospect of having more sweets.

Admittedly, this doesn't make me sound like a very nice, spontaneous and endearing child.


korea said...

Hvis jeg var 4 eller 24 ville jeg have spist den første lige efter researcher damen havde forladt lokalet, ignoreret at man måtte spise en, men bare spist alle dem jeg kunne inden hun kom tilbage.

Jeps, verdens grådigste sukkerhungrende barn..stadig!

Sarah Carlson said...

Røver. Men jeg synes også det er ti gange mere charmerende. End at sidde og lade være.

Man ska da ta' hvad man ka' få!

Forresten, så synes jeg at du skal ændre dit bloggernavn til Chick Korea.