Archive for May 17th, 2009

Why did some of the children wait for the second marshmallow? It’s not a matter of sheer willpower.

| May 17, 2009 | 1 Reply
Why did some of the children wait for the second marshmallow? It’s not a matter of sheer willpower.

The marshmallow study run by psychologist Walter Mischel is a classic. In the late 1960s, the researcher Dave hundreds of four-year-olds, one by one, the chance to either eat one marshmallow right away, or to wait for a while, whereupon they would be allowed to eat two marshmallows when the experimenter returned to the room. Most of the children could not wait for the experimenter to return, even though that happened only 15 minutes later.

Mischel’s study is the focus of an article called “Don’t,” in the May 18, 2009 edition of the New Yorker.

The incredible thing about the children who waited is that they did dramatically better in their lives as adults than the children who couldn’t wait. The children who couldn’t wait:

Got lower SAT scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The children who could wait 15 minutes had an SAT score that was, on average, 210 points higher than that of the kids who can wait only 30 seconds.

But there’s more: “Low-delaying adults have a significantly higher body-mass index and are more likely to have had problems with drugs . . .”

I commented more about this fascinating study here.

The obvious question was whether the 30% of the children who had the ability to wait for the second marshmallow were simply exercising willpower or self-control. Mischel’s follow-up work indicates that it’s not a matter of sheer willpower.

The crucial skill was the “strategic allocation of attention.” Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow–the “hot stimulus”– the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide and seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from Sesame Street.” Their desire wasn’t defeated–it was merely forgotten. If you are thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,”Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.

The reason that the successful children were able to wait reminded me of work by Jonathan Haidt, who suggested (in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis) that human beings consist of two parts. The most powerful part is a huge elephant consisting of appetite cravings and emotions ridden by a “lawyer.” The appetites and emotions are simply too powerful to control by sheer willpower. One of the best tools for the “lawyer” has, then, is to distract the elephant. “Just say no” just doesn’t work very well or very long. What does seem to work, however, is to divert and distract the attention of the elephant. The same technique that was employed by the successful children, many of whom became extremely successful adults.

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Photos from San Francisco

| May 17, 2009 | Reply
Photos from San Francisco

No, I’m not simply trying to curry favor with my mother-in-law. Her name is Cynthia Jay, from Huntington, New York, and she is an exquisite painter and art curator–and a polymath.

She is also learning to use her new camera, the same model that I so often carry around, the Canon SD1100SI (costs less than $200). Cynthia is in St. Louis this weekend, and she shared some recent photos she took in San Francisco. I found two of them especially beautiful. The first was taken in the San Francisco Academy of Sciences Aquarium.

Image by Cynthia Jay - Click for larger image

The subject of the second photo is a tree opposite the DeYoung Museum:

Image by Cynthia Jay - Click for larger image

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Obama directly addresses abortion at Notre Dame

| May 17, 2009 | Reply
Obama directly addresses abortion at Notre Dame

I’ve really got to give Obama credit. No use shying away from difficult topics. Even if they’re intractable disputes, he at least goes in and reminds us to be civil when we discuss the topic (in addition to reminding us that the disputes are, indeed, intractable). Consider the speech Obama gave today, especially his discussion of the abortion issue:

That’s when we begin to say, “Maybe we won’t agree on abortion, but we can still agree that this is a heart-wrenching decision for any woman to make, with both moral and spiritual dimensions.

So let’s work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies, and making adoption more available, and providing care and support for women who do carry their child to term. Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health care policies are grounded in clear ethics and sound science, as well as respect for the equality of women.”

Understand – I do not suggest that the debate surrounding abortion can or should go away. No matter how much we may want to fudge it – indeed, while we know that the views of most Americans on the subject are complex and even contradictory – the fact is that at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable. Each side will continue to make its case to the public with passion and conviction. But surely we can do so without reducing those with differing views to caricature.

Open hearts. Open minds. Fair-minded words.

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Rumsfeld’s religious war

| May 17, 2009 | 4 Replies
Rumsfeld’s religious war

I’m truly disgusted to learn of newest evidence for the religious underpinnings for Donald Rumsfeld’s (and George Bush’s) thought process. GQ has revealed that Rumsfeld authored an entire series of Bible/war memos, “Top Secret Briefings,” to get Bush fired up that he was on God’s side in a Manichean struggle.

This mixing of Crusades-like messaging with war imagery, which until now has not been revealed, had become routine.

For those who say that religion is good, that is sometimes true. Many people have been inspired by religion to channel their natural empathy into acts of kindness.

To those who say religion is dangerous, that is also sometimes true, as witnessed by America’s religious war waged in Iraq. Thanks to the Bush Administration’s application of religion, 100,000 people are dead, tens of thousands of Americans wounded, and millions of Iraqis who have lost their homes.

I would say, as a general rule that we should always discourage violence in the name of religion. Religion is too often a potent mind-altering trip. Too often, it causes people to unplug their pre-frontal cortices, so that their base instincts, especially their xenophobia, rise’s to the top. Religion is too often used to concoct needless imaginary lines between and among groups of people, resulting in growing distrust, which too often ripens into seething hate.

Bottom line: Thanks to Rumsfeld’s (and Bush’s) embrace of what we now know (better than ever) to be religious violence, our “secular” government was able to conclude that their religious ends justified their military means, and that any lie, any torture, and any amount of collateral damage was justified.

All of this in the name of God.

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