Friday, February 26, 2010

Making Them Wait

To piggyback on my last post, years ago I saw a film on people on death row. The filmmaker had done a study on what makes murderers different than the average guy. The one characteristic he found: an inability to wait for deferred rewards. These are people who can't wait until payday; they want money this minute, so they rob someone. They can't wait to watch an ex-lover possibly live a horrible life without them in the picture, so they kill them. The filmmaker suggested that when we raise kids, it's vital that we make them wait for deferred rewards. If they clean their room now, they can have some TV time but only after dinner....

This has huge consumerist implications as people get sucked into the ads that tell them to buy stuff they don't need 99% of which is trashed within 6 months.  If we can get people to delay gratification, to stop and think when they see something they want before hitting the shops, then we can reduce the amount of crap in our landfills.  And it all comes back to Plato's insistence that the most important thing schools should teach is the skill of measurement - measuring the long term gains accurately against short term desires, something we're notoriously inept at doing.    

I tried the marshmallow test on my 5-year-old this morning. I happened to have two wrapped chocolates. I showed them to her and told her I'd give her one now, and if she didn't eat it while I was getting ready for work, then she could have the other one too when I came back downstairs. I unwrapped the one on the table in front of her and put the other in my pocket then folded laundry upstairs to pass the time.

I thought doing the experiment at home would make it easier on her because there were distractions at the table, and she was getting chocolate at 9:00 in the morning, which is a pretty big deal in itself. Surely she could make it the 15 minutes I made her wait.


She came up after 10 minutes: "Sorry, mama. I ate the chocolate. But can I still have the other one please?"

Oh, so polite and cute and tempting, but sorry, no.  "I get the other one," I told her.  She flipped and screamed and ran to her room threatening to never come out again.  Then she yelled out, "I didn't even eat one.  The cat ate it."

According to the original researcher, Walter Mischel, "What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t will power or self-control....It’s much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it.”

Doomed to have low SATs and no social life, or is there a cure?  To what extent can we teach little ones, or anyone for that matter, how to think differently?  I never taught my first two how to cope with delayed reinforcement because they never needed teaching, which makes me wonder if it's all just in there, unable to be significantly altered by manipulative parents.  Researchers now are doing genetic tests and brain scans on the original kids to see if there's a physical difference between them.  The implications are that if it's primarily genetic, then some kids may not succeed as well as others despite our efforts. 

A google search of teaching delayed gratification finds religious sites and people advocating bread making and grass growing as ways to get kids to wait.  My girl can wait patiently for cookies to bake; that's not the problem.  She'd even be okay to not get the cookies until the next day.  It's not the waiting that's the problem as it is the self-control. And the marshmallow test adds a different dimension to mere waiting:  I have something that she can't have.  She didn't have the patience to wait, that's for sure.  But it was greed that overshadowed the exercise.  And the upshot of it all is that she didn't need self-control because she had the expectation of being able to control me, which speaks volumes.  She ate the first one, then came to me for the next one regardless of the deal we made.  To be fair, all the kids who ate the first one, still expected to get the second one.  She thought she had found a way to make the situation work for her.  Not having her expectations realized was an abomination in her mind.  She clearly needs to get less of what she demands!   

The researcher suggests the secret to self-control is "strategic allocation of attention." Instead of focusing on the marshmallow, they find a way to distract themselves.  This is a standard cognitive behaviour therapy tool.  But that doesn't really answer what the difference is.  That is, why are some kids better at distracting themselves while they wait?  Mischel suggests it's just a matter of controlling attention and focus and that practice is key.  Kids need to be made to wait over and over and taught tricks to help them get through the waiting like pretending the marshmallow is just a photograph in a frame or a cloud that will disappear if you touch it. 

Other researchers measured the ability of adults to control the contents of their working memory - the ability to direct the spotlight of attention so that our decisions aren’t determined by the wrong thoughts.  They found that as adults, the ones who could distract themselves from the marshmallow as children, were now able to suppress certain words from the memory on command, and avoid clicking on smiling faces better than the adults who jumped at the marshmallows as kids.

It's all an ability to work against instinct, to avoid food, remembering or friendly faces, all things we instinctively gravitate to.  The only way to defeat instincts is to pay attention to something else - an alternative stimuli.  And some people have a much easier time doing this than others.   

Providing strategies seems useful if kids are given strategies of a specific situation, but one problem for some people seems to be creating their own strategies at the crucial moment.  We can't have coaches following us around making suggestions to help us avoid a compelling immediate gratification. Furthermore, another component of this exercise is recognizing when you're in a situation where waiting is the best idea.  Two marshmallows over one, it's clear it's best to wait.  But what about a treat at the store that you want right now.  Mom says no, but why on earth would you want to avoid the treat?  What's better than getting what you want right this minute?  You're not getting a box full later if you don't beg for just one now.  You'll get nothing if you don't advocate for your right to a little self-indulgence.

Mischel suggests some self-control-building techniques:  "Have they established rituals that force you to delay on a daily basis? Do they encourage you to wait? And do they make waiting worthwhile?....Even the most mundane routines of childhood—such as not snacking before dinner, or saving up your allowance, or holding out until Christmas morning—are really sly exercises in cognitive training: we’re teaching ourselves how to think so that we can outsmart our desires."

I make my kids wait all the time.  The biggest annoyance is my refusal to use the dryer.  They have to wait for clothes to air dry, which just about kills them when a favourite pair of jeans is in the wash.  But how do you make the waiting worthwhile? I seem to be teaching them that waiting sucks, that the planet is more important to me than they are as their social lives are destroyed by their limited fashion choices each day.  What bigger rewards can there be to making waiting worthwhile?

Health?  More money in the piggy bank?  Less pollution on the planet?  Those are really long term rewards where the gain is so far off it's almost imperceptible to the naked eye.  It starts to work when you hit middle age and start to feel the pangs of age and start to calculate the ratio of years to retirement to money saved and start to want a better future for your kids.  But in the prime of life, something else has to be a reward.  It has to be social - like if people will like you better if you resist buying something.  But that typically works the opposite way.  People crowd around anyone with a new gismo.

This is it.  This is the key to everything.  Find a reward that people can look to, something to make it worth their while to distract them from mindless shopping.  Maybe suggest they should wait a day or week or a year before making any purchase more than a certain amount of money.  But what if that great bargain is gone by then?  That's the catch.  Industry doesn't want you to think; they want you in here today.  If we can recognize that tactic and refuse to obey, we'll all be much better off.  

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