Thursday, January 20, 2011

Can Two Marshmallows Make You Smarter, Happier, and Healthier? :)

If you mix a couple of spoonfuls of hot cocoa mix with a couple of spoonfuls of chai tea latte mix into your cup of hot milk you have an almost perfect ending to a day full of snow shoveling, baby tending, neighbor visiting, and house keeping.  Almost perfect but not quite.  To get to perfection I have found there are two other essential ingredients to your little bit of heaven you will soon be sipping on the milk-stained and graham cracker-crumbed couch.  One of these ingredients is the fluffy whipped topping that is often seen sitting atop yummy hot drinks.  The other of these ingredients is a bit less familiar.  In fact, until my mom plunked this ingredient into a little bowl she handed me with our traditional party mix and a few Christmas cookies ready for me to sample I had no clue that such a thing existed.  Laying scattered throughout my party mix and one with a leg lodged under a Santa cookie I first met the gingerbread marshmallows!  Shaped like little gingerbread boys, Jet Puff apparently came out with a new holiday marshmallow for this year.  As I peered down at them in my bowl, and my mom explained what they were, I admit I was a little skeptical that a gingerbread marshmallow would make the grade.  Too many things claim they are something-or-another 'flavored', and too many times if the taste is not just outright unpleasant then I find myself pondering if I can detect a hint of the 'flavor' purported.  Pinching one of the little guys in between my fingers I do the sniff test and admit that he does smell distinctly gingerbread-ish.  Assuming the chalking white dust, that I can only guess is to keep the little guys from sticking together in their bag, does not bode well as a taste indicator I plopped the squishy man into my mouth.  Mmmm. . .   . . .   . . . YUM!  He did, in fact, fit the gingerbread-flavored bill!  And as a contrast to our salty and spicy party mix I fell instantly in love with these scrumptious treats.  Not long after beginning my love affair with these sweet brown men I found myself wondering how he would perform in hot chocolate.  After confirming his excellence in hot chocolate I then began my experimentation stage.  And this is how we came to our cup of perfection.  So I described the mix of powders and the stirring into the milk, but the next steps must be followed very carefully in order to obtain 'just the right' taste of perfection.  First you place a layer of gingerbread men marshmallows on top of your hot cocoa/chai tea latte drink.  This allows them to melt into a lovely gingerbread-ey blob of goo.  Then you cover them in a thick cloud of whipped topping.  Finally, you strategically place one, or two if it has been a particularly long day, sweet little gingerbread man marshmallow on top of his fluffy white pillow.  Ahhhhhhh. 

Now if I could just wait a few minutes before I enjoy this lovely treat I will be a smarter, happier, healthier me. . .

In 1968, while on the faculty at Stanford University, Walter Mischel began what would become a decades' long study started with more than 500 four year old participants and trays full of marshmallows, cookies, and pretzel sticks.  This study became know as 'The Marshmallow Tests'.  The initial goal of the experiment was to identify the mental processes that allow some people to delay gratification while others simply give in to their impulses. A researcher would take a four year old into a small room in the Bing Nursery School on the Stanford University campus.  The room contained a desk, a chair, and the tray of treats.  The child was then asked to sit down in the chair and pick a treat.  The researcher told the child that he or she could either eat one treat  right away or, if he or she was willing to wait while the researcher stepped out for a few minutes, the child could have two treats when the researcher returned. The researcher then explained that if the child rang a bell on the desk while the researcher was away the researcher would come back right away, and the child could eat one treat but would give up the chance to have a second. Then the researcher left the room.

About 30 percent of the children studied successfully delayed gratification until the researcher returned 15 minutes later, but the remainder of the children couldn't control their impulses long enough to get the second treat.  Some of the children immediately ate the treat while others resisted it briefly, did not ring the bell, and then surrendered to their desire.  Most of the children appeared to struggle in resisting the treat and held out for an average of less than three minutes.

Initially, psychologists assumed the children’s ability to resist the urge to eat the treat depended on how much they desired the treat, but during the observations it was obvious that every child craved the extra treat. Mischel concluded that what determined the children's self-control was what he called "the crucial skill [of] 'strategic allocation of attention'.”  After hundreds of hours of observation researchers found that the children who were best able to resist the urge to eat the treat distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from “Sesame Street” rather than focusing on the treat.  Their ability to to refocus did not extinguish their desire, but it helped them avoid falling victim to their impulses.  Conversely, the children who tried to 'stare down' the treat ended up generally ringing the bell within 30 seconds or just eating the treat without ringing the bell at all. 

After publishing a few papers on the studies in the early seventies, Mischel, the Stanford professor of psychology in charge of the experiment, shifted his focus to other areas of personality research.  He explained, "There are only so many things you can do with kids trying not to eat marshmallows."

Mischel's three daughters all attended the Bing Nursery School, and he would occasionally ask them about their nursery school friends during "idle dinnertime conversation."  In talking about how their friends were doing, Mischel began observing a correlation between the children's ability to wait for the second treat in the nursery school study and their academic performance as adolescents. After talking with his daughters and asking them to assess their friends academically on a scale of 0 to 5 Mischel compared their informal ratings with the original data findings.  Beginning to see patterns emerging, in 1981 Mischel sent questionnaires to all the parents, teachers, and academic advisers that he could find of the six hundred and fifty-three subjects who had participated in 'The Marshmallow Tests.'  The subjects were in high school by that time, and he asked about traits such as their their capacity to plan and think ahead, their ability to "cope well with problems", and their ability to get along with peers. He also requested their S.A.T. scores.

Upon analyzing the results Mischel found the children who were able to wait fifteen minutes had higher educational achievements, were more likely to pursue goals, were less likely to abuse drugs, and had S.A.T. scores that averaged 210 points higher than the scores of the the children who were only able to wait 30 seconds.  The children who rang the bell quickly exhibited more behavioral problems, struggled in stressful situations, had trouble paying attention,  and found it difficult to maintain friendships.  Interestingly, 'The Marshmallow Tests' were better predictors of S.A.T. scores than IQ tests.  Findings showed them to be at least twice as predictive.  In following these subjects later into adulthood, Mischel found that at the age of 38 the subjects who had exhibited greater deferred gratification skills had lower rates of marital separation and divorces, fewer legal problems, and lower body-mass index numbers.  They were also less easily frustrated and side-tracked in their lives. 

Now that the subjects are in their mid-40s, Mischel and his research team are continuing to gather information about both the original subjects' lives and about the lives of their children, including studying MRIs of the subjects' brains.  Mischel has said, “We are beginning to clarify how changes in the cognitive representation of the object of desire changes the ability to control one’s own behavior.  It’s what allows people to resist the dessert that they swore to themselves they wouldn’t eat before they entered the restaurant … It connects to addictive behavior, obesity, the tobacco catastrophe.”

Mischel has done work showing children did much better on the marshmallow task after being taught simple “mental transformations," such as imagining putting a picture frame around the treats or pretending a marshmallow was a cloud.  The children were able to increase their ability to delay gratification by up to 15 minutes.  Mischel reported, “When we asked them how they were able to wait so well now, they said, ‘Well, you can’t eat a picture’."  What is unknown is whether or not these new skills will generalize across all domains of their lives.  Will the tasks the children learn work only during the experiments or are they able to apply them at home or school when faced with decision-making such as completing homework vs. texting friends or playing video games online or skipping classes with friends vs.joining clubs and extra-curricular activities? 

Mischel asserts, “This is where your parents are important."  Children can be taught techniques to improve their self-control and ability to defer gratification, but the techniques require practice to perfect them.  Mischel describes normal family routine, structure, and rules such as not snacking before dinner, saving allowance or gifts of money rather than spending them immediately, and waiting to open gifts on birthdays or Christmas morning rather than earlier as exercises in cognitive training that parents can use to help their children be successful in their future lives.

Mischel’s findings are currently being applied in many fields.  From early education, economics, finance, and risk-taking, to mental health which is working to understand and address behavior problems and personality disorders, marshmallow management may be the answer. 

And since I have been working on this blog for more than 15 minutes without too much frustration and without ringing a bell I think I have earned my second gingerbread marshmallow man.  Now what was that about marshmallows and body-mass index?. . .

Enjoy with your hot chocolate and marshmallows!: 

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