Facebook and Twitter as marshmallow dispensers

June 8, 2009 | By | 1 Reply More

I’ve previously written about a fascinating marshmallow experiment here and here.

To set the stage, keep in mind that marshmallows are the equivalent of crack cocaine for young children.  In the experiment, numerous four-year olds were each left alone with a marshmallow and told that they could eat it if they wanted.  They were also told that if they could wait until the experimenter returned (which would happen 15 minutes later), they could have two marshmallows.

Only about 30% of the children had the discipline to wait for the experimenter to return.   When the psychologists followed up on these children fourteen years later, they found some startling things. Those four-year-olds who exerted the willpower to wait for two marshmallows scored an average of more than 200 points higher on the SAT than those who couldn’t wait. Those who could wait also show themselves to be more cooperative, more able to work under pressure and more self-reliant. In sum, they were dramatically more able to achieve their goals than those who couldn’t wait.

Which leads me to this thought:  Are Internet social sites the cyber-equivalent of marshmallow dispensers?   Since reading of the marshmallow experiment, I have repeatedly thought of inability of many people to resist spending hours on social sites such as Facebook and Twitter.  I also think of those who burn long hours on MySpace and those who are non-stop texters.  Perhaps Internet news junkies belong in the same category.

I don’t know the exact numbers, but there are numerous folks who aren’t getting nearly enough important things done in their lives (things THEY consider to be important) who are spending immense numbers of hours chatting and gossiping.  I personally know some of these people.  If these were retired people without any daily obligations, it would be one thing.   Many of them, however, are blowing countless chances to make significant progress on goals that they themselves have set.  I’m also aware that social site users lay along a continuum, and that many of them use these Internet social tools sparingly and effectively.   For many others, though, these sites serve as substitutes for friends and massive time-drains. What does that say about the psychological profile of those people who can’t say no to the chit-chat served up on the social sites?

I should mention that gossiping is not necessarily trivial.  As Robin Dunbar has concluded from his research, we need to gossip in order to knit the social fabric.  Gossiping constitutes “social grooming.”

My point is that there are many people who refuse to be selective when it comes to the information that pours out of the Internet onto their screens.   They are glued to those screens when Facebook tells them that their third cousin’s puppy peed on the carpet or when an old high school chum announces to the world that she is going to order a large order of french fries tonight.

Image by Kato Tomato at Flickr (Creative Commons)

Image by Kato Tomato at Flickr (Creative Commons)

For those people who refuse to exercise their pre-frontal cortices in order to screen out this noise, doesn’t this sort of information constitute the cyber-equivalent of marshmallows, and aren’t these people a lot like those children who lacked discipline?

I would like to see some research demonstrating the character and (lessened) potential of those people who allow social site trivia to entice them through substantial chunks of their discretionary time.  I assume that they are less happy than those who live in the real world and more able to solve real life problems. Yes, maybe they already received high SAT scores years ago (when they were in high school).   But how are they doing now?  To what extent are they getting fat and happy on cyber-marshmallows?  To what extent do they actually know that they have a problem?  And what is the best way to give  their lives back to them?

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Category: American Culture, Communication, Internet, Networking, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Thom Gross says:

    New York Magazine has an interesting piece on this topic, which good information on how the digital distractions impact brain functioning. http://infomash.wordpress.com/2009/06/01/the-cost

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