The Social Animal

You’ve probably heard about the old marshmallow test, the one where they give young children a marshmallow and tell them that, if they can just wait 15 minutes before eating the marshmallow, they’ll receive a second treat. The research on this suggests that the students who can delay gratification earn higher grades, enjoy better marriages, and do better in their hockey pools. (Ok. I might be wrong about the hockey pools, but you get the idea: the disciplined self is the successful self.)

David Brooks, author of “The Social Animal,” says scientists have discovered that one of the reasons why some children are able to wait those 15 minutes is a result of their thinking differently. Some of these “successful delayers” said that they just thought of the marshmallow as a mushroom or as a cloud. (Perhaps I should try to think of ice cream as silly putty or styrofoam?)

I’m intrigued by the notion that, by getting ourselves to think differently, we can change our own behaviour. Over the years, I’ve noticed that boys who successfully deal with set backs (“I should have made the team or won the election or gotten into the university”) tend to see their individual lives as a story. Think of a Dickens’ novel, for instance. When bad things happen, as they inevitably do, what does the protagonist do? He suffers, of course, but it’s almost as if he is aware that this is a temporary state of pain. It’s almost as if he knows this hardship is one of many chapters, and that ultimately, by the end of the book, he will experience triumph.

Every once in a while, one of these “narrative” boys will take this level of awareness to the next level and suggest that his individual story, again a bit like any Dickens’ novel, is a thread that is connected to the grand epic, the cosmic story in which we all play a part.


2 thoughts on “The Social Animal

  1. Like your piece, Jim, very much. Except that recent follow-up research on the marshmallow admissions test for pre-school shows that it has zero correlation, actually, with later success in school and life. Not to mention that NYC parents learned about it and began coaching their kids on waiting out the 15 minutes.

    That being said, the capacity to delay and denying instant gratification is what all maturity is based on: think saving for the future, faithfulness, etc.

  2. Jim,
    I was reading about Cognitive Bias Modification where the belief is that many psychological problems are caused by an automatic, unconscious bias in thinking. Anxiety is described as an attentional bias towards threats. An anxious person makes the worst case assumptions about the motives or intentions of others in day to day interaction.Individuals can administer this therapy with no therapist or a virtual therapist.

    Your bright student may have a bias to self discipline and deferred gratification but become crippled by dysfunctional family relationships, performance anxiety and trauma.

    There is another new therapy called Eye Movement Desensitization Regimen (EMDR) first developed to treat PTSD among soldiers. This therapy has been successfully applied to any one who has experienced a severe trauma.

    Mix this kind of self administered therapy up with what we know about Emotional Intelligence and school performance and you have recipe for helping students modify their own behaviour and cope with traumas like abuse or losing a parent in Grade 11.


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