My Kingdom For A. . . Marshmallow?: The Astounding Aftermath

Posted on May 8, 2012 by

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(by Myopics at flickr.com)

Even four-year-olds and marshmallows, cute a combination as they are, get old after a while.

So that, it seemed, was that, as sociologist Walter Mischel, lead researcher on the Stanford Marshmallow Study, got publication after publication out of his marshmallow-eating kids run, and he knew enough to be pretty pleased with himself. If you’ll remember from last post, he said–and this is profound, in its own way–”There are only so many things you can do with kids trying not to eat marshmallows.”

But just as Frost’s “way leads on to way,” so, too, the mishmash of marshmallow data would find soon find itself on a new path, one least expected.

Mischel apparently had friendlier children than I, for his daughters, age-mates with the Marshmallow Study participants, stayed in touch with a number of their pre-school playmates, and Mischel would casually ask after them.

Now clearly his wife had a more observant husband than I’ve got, as well, as such questions were usually asked in our family with my husband nodding ‘uh-huh, uh-huh,’ while scanning the newspaper he had surreptitiously brought to the table.

But no checking basketball scores during chit-chat for Mischel. Rather, he thought he realized a connection between the children’s ability to wait out the marshmallow task–and their academic performance as they grew into adolescents.

So Mischel pulled out what must have been musty paperwork, and posed a question: Was there a difference, all these years later, between those who could delay gratification, and those who pounced on that marshmallow, and, if so–what was it?

Supremely talented science writer Jonah Lehrer, in his excellent piece in the New Yorker entitled “Don’t!: The secret of self-control” [a must-read], writes of Mischel’s frenzied efforts to go after data he was sure would lead somewhere important:

Starting in 1981, Mischel sent out a questionnaire to all the reachable parents,  teachers, and academic advisers of the six hundred and fifty-three subjects who  had participated in the marshmallow task, who were by then in high school. He  asked about every trait he could think of, from their capacity to plan and think  ahead to their ability to “cope well with problems” and get along with their  peers. He also requested their S.A.T. scores.

These social scientists leave no stone un-turned.

But the effort was worth it, and has paid off in astonishing results, and (a professor’s dream), publication after publication.

By his 1990 article,  “Predicting adolescent cognitive and self-regulatory competencies from preschool delay of gratification,” he had found:

. . .those who delayed longer in preschool were rated as more likely to exhibit self-control in frustrating situations, less likely to yield to temptation, more intelligent, and less distractable when trying to concentrate.

And even better–by 1998 Mischel and his colleagues had determined that there were more correlations–and stronger than previously thought:

The correlations found in the present longitudinal study depict the child who delayed in preschool as an adolescent who is seen by parents as more academically and socially competent than peers and as more able to cope effectively. [T]hese children are seen as verbally fluent and able to express ideas, using and responding to reason, attentive and able to concentrate, planful and thinking ahead, and competent and skillful. They also are seen as able to cope and deal with stress more maturely, and seem more self-assured.

And as if that weren’t enough, that abstract ‘academic competency’ translated into cold, hard numbers. As quoted by researchers studying the economic implications of self-control, Mischel revealed that SAT scores of the marshmallow-waiters were an average of 210 points higher than for those children who had waited for 30 second or less before devouring their treats.

Once the researchers saw they had a good thing going, they held on for dear life (these poor marshmallow-eaters will be 95 and in nursing homes and still plagued by researchers; it’s a sure bet). A recent follow-up was done when these pre-schoolers were 38 years old–and their abilities to delay as little tykes kept paying off.  In their late 30s those who held out for that marshmallow had less divorce and separation, fewer violations of the law, and lower body-mass index (with higher BMI acting as a potential predictor of consequent health problems) than the early gobblers (Ayduk et al, unpublished data).

Now, let me be fair and honest, knowing that you, like I, are deluged with material to read and absorb, and really only have so much time to apportion to a given blog: You’ve got the bulk of the good stuff already, and you have every right to move on. The rest of it is fascinating–it involves brain scanning and fMRIs, and–don’t get too excited now–signficant differences between the prefrontal cortex and the ventral striatum in the groups. [That probably did you in; hope to see you tomorrow.] For the rest of you, what was fascinating up until now gets signficantly wilder and more scientific.

Because one Dr. B.J. Casey, director of the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology at Weill Cornell Medical College, also examined these poor adults (who must have sorely regretted every having gotten involved with Mischel and his marshmallows), 59 to be exact, looking at those in the extremes of the experiment–either those who could wait the whole 15 minutes, or those whose marshmallows were in their gullets within seconds.

Now in their mid-40s, the subjects were asked to push a button every time a smiley face came on the screen. They got into a groove, and when a different face came on, they had to work hard to refrain from pressing that button–similar, hoped the experimenters, to the restraint they needed to refrain from eating the marshmallow, years earlier. Good enough.

Well, the first part’s old hat. Those who could delay eating the marshmallow could also hold back from pressing the button; those who had difficulty keeping the gooey treat out of their jaws–well, the button got pressed from here to tomorrow. It seems clear that patterns of self-control are laid down early in our lives.

 But that’s not what was original in Casey et al’s research.

Here comes the exciting brain scanning I promised you, if you’d hang with me–and if you find brain anatomy exciting, which is a big ‘if.’

fMRI scans of the subjects’ brains showed that increased frontal lobe activity was associated with resistance (the frontal lobe is known to be important in exerting control). And the ventral stratium, a part of the brain thought to process desire and rewards–was more active in those who simply couldn’t resist.

As far as I understood, I thought that made perfect sense, but as I was reading the article I came across a piece of scientific language I simply must share with you, astounding as it is in its ability to obfuscate a fairly simple point. Ready?

[R]esisting temptation is supported by ventral frontostriatal circuitry, with the inferior frontal gyrus showing lesser recruitment in low delayers and the ventral striatum showing exaggerated recruitment in low delayers when resisting alluring cues.

Right–we all together then?

But turns out the ventral stratium, the area active in these ‘low-delayers,’ is an area linked to addictions.

And therein lies the real use of knowing which  brain area is stimulated when–and for whom. Is it ‘will power’ after all that prevents us from eating that chocolate muffin? Or are we hard-wired to go for it, depressing as that may be to failed dieters? And can we in fact retrain our brains to strengthen the frontal lobe activity when faced with temptation?

Says Dr. Casey:

This is the first time we have located the specific brain areas related to delayed gratification. This could have major implications in the treatment of obesity and addictions.

We’re clearly not there yet, but identifying the regions of the brain that control impulsive actions is the first step to strengthening them–and helping people enjoy sobriety, saving, stopping before they’ve overdone it–and, of course, staring down that marshmallow, mastering the haunting childhood task once and for all.

REFERENCES

Ayduk O, Shoda Y, Mischel W. Longitudinal links between preschool ability to delay gratification and adult life outcomes. 2006; Unpublished data, Columbia University. Quoted from Shoda Y, Cervone D, Downey G. Persons in Context: Building a Science of the Individual. New York:Guilford Press, 2007.

Casey BJ, et al. Behavioral and neural correlates of delay of gratification 40 years later. PNAS 2011; 108(36):14998-15003.

Piovesan M, Alessandro B, Houser D. Willpower in children and adults: A survey of results and economic implications. International Review of Economics 2010; 57(3):259-267.

Shoda Y, Mischel W, Peake PK. Predicting adolescent cognitive and self-regulatory competencies from preschool delay of gratification. Developmental Psychology 1990; 26(6):978-986.

Weill Cornell Medical College. Marshmallow test points to biological basis for delayed gratification. ScienceDaily, 31 Aug. 2011. Web. 7 May 2012.