STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

You want the cookie. How can you resist? One psychologist's strategy, and why it matters


Today, we have a story about the time one of the most famous television characters in history re-enacted one of the most famous psychology experiments in history.

The character is Cookie Monster. And the experiment, well for Cookie Monster, it was called a game:

The game Cookie Monster played is based on a series of experiments that have come to be known as the Marshmallow Test.

The study is famous is because of what researchers learned decades after doing the test. Kids who had been able to resist the temptation of the first marshmallow turned out to have much better outcomes as adults – including higher SAT scores and a lower body mass index.

This research was all about delayed gratification. Once the benefits became clear, the next question  was: How can you teach kids to overcome that first impulse, and wait for the longer-term reward?

Cookie Monster’s strategies were all about distraction and willpower.

Which is great. But:

"The one thing that we know from the last decade of psychological research is that the more that you try to exert willpower, the harder it becomes with each next trial," says David DeSteno, a psychologist at Northeastern University.  

DeSteno argues in a recent cover story for Pacific Standard magazine that any strategy that relies on willpower is a weak approach for teaching kids how to overcome their impulses. His research shows there’s a much stronger, built-in way to resist temptation. And it involves harnessing the power of human emotions:

"And so, in the same way you have cognitive 'mind hacks,' what I'm advocating are emotional 'mind hacks,'" DeSteno says. "Which target a completely different process and mechanism of the mind."

DeSteno says the current approach for kids is often to teach them to tamp down their emotions, so  they can effectively solve their problem.

"We’re not teaching kids to use emotions as tools," he says.

But our emotions can be tools. We know this. Fear can motivate us to avoid a dangerous situation, for example.

"When we make people feel grateful, they value the long-term more," says Northeastern University psychology professor and author David DeSteno. "And they're much more willing to wait for long term rewards than to take the immediate cash."

In his lab, DeSteno studies how emotional states can help decision-making.

In one experiment, DeSteno and his researchers asked participants to remember a time when they felt grateful for something. Later, they gave them a test to see whether they would take immediate cash, or be willing to wait for a larger payout down the road.

"And what we found is when we make people feel grateful, they value the long-term more," DeSteno says. "And they’re much more willing to wait for long-term rewards than to take the immediate cash."

This isn’t just a trick to avoid the thing you want. DeSteno says people who spend time focused on being grateful simply make a different calculation. They value the long term more.

So, for Cookie Monster:

"What we would tell Cookie Monster to do is, if you’re going to face a challenge, before you face it, stop for a moment and think about something that you’re grateful for in your life and focus on it," DeSteno says.  

Focusing on a helpful emotion, like gratitude, can change the whole equation for long-term thinking.

So, whether you’re a kid, or you’re Cookie Monster, waiting won’t seem so hard.

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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