You know you want to…
Picture, if you will, a 44 year old woman staring longingly, lovingly even, at a cookie.
Eyes closed, she inhales, breathing in its sweetness, turning it over in her hands as crumbs fall to the plate. With a wrench she thrusts it down, turning and jolting out of her seat, leaving the temptation behind her.
Ok. I’ve dramatized a little. And played with the details a little… But if you remember a couple of posts back we talked about a bunch of preschoolers faced with the now famous marshmallow test, inflicted on these kids in the psychology lab at Stanford University with psychologist Walter Mischel, it might sound familiar.
The difference in the two scenarios is, of course, time. It’s been 40 years since the famous marshmallow test. And the preschooler is now all growed up. So what better thing to do than call them all up, get them back in the lab, and run the experiment all over again?
Some of these now adults had once managed to resist the immediate temptation of one marshmallow now, for the delayed benefit of two marshmallows later. Others hadn’t.
Mischel had been interested in what those kids did, by which he might better understand the processes and steps we go through that means some people will delay gratification, and others will just get on in there and satisfy themselves there and then. Mischel was interested because the ability to delay gratification seemed strongly linked to success: more success, resilience, stickability and self-control.
The Marshmallow Test. Take 2
But it’s one thing to run an experiment with kids and marshmallows, or cookies. What’s enticing or alluring as an adult is not necessarily enticing or alluring to a four year old. Life gets way, waaaaay more complicated, and we focus much more on things like social acceptance than we do on cookies or marshmallows.
Consequently, Mischel says, this new study focused on the extent to which individual differences in delaying gratiﬁcation (measured when the subjects were preschoolers, and in their 20s and 30s) predicted control over impulses and sensitivity to social cues at the behavioral, and neural level, when the participants were in their 40s.
If that sounds complicated, what Mischel was saying was that
- the ability to delay gratification is a stable ability through life
- what is alluring changes as we age, so he tested the adults’ ability to resist social cues, rather than marshmallows or cookies
- high delayers would have different approaches from low delayers and,
- we could measure this by observing behavior – what they actually did
- and we could measure it neurally – by how their brain responded
Which is exactly what he did…
The set up
…with a tricky little test called the go/no go test, the premise for which is simple.
Once our brains are trained into something, like a routine or habit, this is the easiest thing for the brain to do. And the more we use this routine, the more the brain gets used to it, and the more the brain physically reinforces the pathways it uses to do this.
Note: this is exactly why we struggle to change habits – we’re struggling to get the brain to do something hard and create a new pathway, rather than something easy like following a well-used path. The brain prefers the pathways of least resistance!
The tough bit is that it takes more brain resources to prevent ourselves from doing something, than to do something. By resources I mean energy, which for your brain is glucose. Stopping yourself doing something depletes energy faster, makes you more tired faster, and more likely to want to give up trying.
Another note: get plenty of sleep and eat well if you want to help yourself change habits!
For the go/no go test, subjects are presented with one of two stimuli, one of which has been selected as the target. In this case the stimuli are faces of men or women, and the target is either male faces or female faces. The faces are flashed for 500 milliseconds, one second apart.
What the subjects have to do is press a button (go) when they see a target, and withhold pressing (no go) when they see a non-target – hence the name go/no go. Simple.
Except that we know the more “go” stimuli you get, the harder the no/go becomes. Pathways of least resistance remember.
And that’s with neutral stimuli, otherwise known as “cool”. What Mischel wanted was things that were alluring, or “hot”, by which he means hard for the brain to resist. Here, it’s facial expressions, showing either fear or happiness. The brain loves faces, and especially faces with expressions. Resisting these is tough.
So neutral expressions were “cool”, and emotional expressions were “hot”, which is where we really got to the good stuff. The same people could delay, the same people couldn’t. But it was how, that was so fascinating. The high delayers used more of one brain region, and less of another, The low delayers were the opposite. Here’s how.
What the brain did
Fundamentally, there were two brain regions involved. The first, the prefrontal cortex, is in the frontal lobe, just behind your forehead. The second, the ventral striatum, is buried deep within the middle of your brain. The first is complex, involved in mental processing, and is used, among many other things, to control impulses. The second is more basic, responds to desires, and is involved in immediate reward decisions.
The high delayers recruited their frontal lobes focusing on how to resist. The low delayers recruited the pleasure regions, focusing on how goooooood it would be. The implications for us, and for our kids, are straightforward.
So here’s the take home bit
To teach our kids, and ourselves, to wait, we need to cool down hot or alluring temptations, or the hot aspects of temptation. Here’s the trick.
In the marshmallows for example the cool aspects are things like shape and color, so kids could imagine the marshmallow as a little cloud, a chef’s hat, a bit of modelling clay and so on, which took the heat out of the allurement.
The hot aspects are things like taste and maybe texture, so other kids would focus on the chewy texture and delicious taste and, sure enough, be unable to resist.
The same thinking applies for adults, albeit for different things.
Ever noticed how good salespeople promote the hot aspects, and social acceptance aspects?
It tastes so good. It feels wonderful. You’ll look so good to others. You’ll be the envy of friends. Buy now, pay later. Everyone has one…
Let me know how you get on.
Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat
Alluring temptations, hot and cold features, prefrontal cortex, ventral striatum.
What do you think?
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