Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Marshmellow Test

In this week’s New Yorker is an article about Stanford Child Development research that looks at the ability to delay gratification. Children ages 4 and 5 were invited into a room and shown a tray with candy treats including a marshmallow. Asked to choose a treat the children were told that they could have one or if they could wait a few minutes they could have two. The researcher leaves the room but a camera follows the children’s actions.

Some children pop the marshmallow right into their mouth. Some stare at it and sit on their hands until the man returns but others cover their eyes or play under the desk until the researcher reenters and they can have the two treats.

At first researchers thought they were looking at desire but then realized that all the children wanted the treat. But some were able to wait. They could hold on or hold out so that they could have more by delaying gratification. The key the researchers discovered was whether these tots could manage their thinking. The ones who stared at the marshmallow typically could not resist but those who covered their eyes or hid under the table, or sang songs to themselves were able to wait—and benefit from the waiting.

The discovery was that some kids understood how to distract themselves so that they could delay gratification.

We talk about alcoholics as being unable to delay desire and its true, but again we see the wisdom of AA in the ways that we—adults yes, but not unlike the little kids—can be taught to not stare at the rink, to shift our focus, to distract our selves from our desires. We learn to “think through the drink” and to “change people places and things”.

I love imagining my constant desires—for shoes, food, comfort, whatever as the marshmallow test. Can I cover my eyes? Sing a song? Distract myself by calling another alcoholic? So that I can wait to enjoy my treat!

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