The greatest challenge is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011


Walter Mischel conducted experiments at Stanford University throughout the late 1960s
and early 1970s in which he and his researchers offered a bargain to children.
The kids sat at a table in front of a bell and some treats. They could pick a pretzel, a
cookie or a giant marshmallow. They told the little boys and girls they could either
eat the treat right away or wait a few minutes. If they waited, they would double their
payoff and get two treats. If they couldn’t wait, they had to ring the bell after which
the researcher would end the experiment.
Some made no attempt at self-control and just ate right away. Others stared intensely
at the object of their desire until they gave in to temptation. Many writhed in agony,
twisting their hands and feet while looking away. Some made silly noises.
In the end, a third couldn’t resist.

What started as an experiment about delayed gratification has now, decades later, yielded
a far more interesting set of revelations about metacognition – thinking about thinking.
Mischel has followed the lives of all his subjects through high-school, college and into
adulthood where they accumulated children, mortgages and jobs.
The revelation from this research is kids who were able to overcome their desire for
short-term reward in favor of a better outcome later weren’t smarter than the other kids,
nor were they less gluttonous. They just had a better grasp of how to trick themselves
into doing what was best for them.
They watched the wall instead of looking at the food. They tapped their feet instead
of smelling the confection. The wait was torture for all, but some knew it was going
to be impossible to just sit there and stare at the delicious, gigantic marshmallow
without giving in.
The younger the child, the worse they were at metacognition. Any parent can tell you
little kids aren’t the best at self-control. Among the older age groups some were better
at devising schemes for avoiding their own weak wills, and years later seem to have
been able to use that power to squeeze more out of life.