Tag Archives: mind

More on Marshmallows: The Marshmallow Test and Deferred Gratification

Speaking of the relationship between marshmallows and human psychology, you may have read Jonah Lehrer’s piece in The New Yorker earlier this year or, more recently, encountered this video floating around the Internet:

“The Marshmallow Test” eh? Cute. But where exactly is the science here? What’s the experiment getting at? Well, it’s actually about patterns of thought. It’s about how we think through the situations we find ourselves in. And it’s about changing how we perceive the external world by controlling our internal states. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.

In the late 1960s, Walter Mischel—a Stanford professor at the time, working with the Bing Nursery School, but currently teaching at Columbia University—came up with a test to explore why some individuals are better at delaying gratification than others. His idea was as follows: researchers present preschoolers with a marshmallow—all sweet and fluffy—and tell them that they must make a choice: (a) either they can eat the marshmallow right away, or (b) they can wait; if they can resist temptation while the researcher briefly leaves the room, they will get a second marshmallow upon his return.

Some children managed to entirely resist the natural urge to grab the treat before them, earning a second; others struggled valiantly—trying to distract themselves—before giving in; still others found it altogether too much to bear, devouring the marshmallow minutes after the researcher exited or even before he made it out the door. But this wasn’t just a matter of some individuals being hungrier than others; or some kids having more will power than others; nor was it that some kids just really really really liked marshmallows. Everyone wanted the marshmallows. The difference, according to Mischel, is in how the preschoolers thought about their dilemma. In The New Yorker article, Mischel explains: “What we’re really measuring with the marshmallows isn’t will power or self-control. It’s much more important than that. This task forces kids to find a way to make the situation work for them. They want the second marshmallow, but how can they get it? We can’t control the world, but we can control how we think about it.”

The children who delayed gratification did so by manipulating their own thinking about the situation they found themselves in. They intentionally distracted themselves—singing songs, covering their eyes—anything to get them away from thoughts about the delicious marshmallow and how easy it would be to give in. Learning these kinds of cognitive tricks, learning how to control one’s urges and defer gratification, takes time and practice. But some children might have a natural advantage: some children might be particularly good at what Mischel calls “strategic allocation of attention,” simply because it’s an inherent part of their personality. But even if nature predetermines some aspects of our personalities for us, there’s always nurture—our social environments and personal experiences—to make things a bit more interesting.

Several years down the road, Mischel found some intriguing correlations: preschoolers who’d experienced trouble delaying gratification had lower SAT scores as teenagers compared with those preschoolers who were able to resist temptation; they had more trouble maintaining attention in school, too; and they had more social and behavior problems. But what if children who exhibit particular difficulty resisting desires can be taught the same cognitive tricks used by children who are naturally adept at deferring gratification? It seems there’s real promise here and it’s something Mischel has already looked into. As Lehrer describes in The New Yorker piece, “When [Mischel] and his colleagues taught children a simple set of mental tricks—such as pretending that the candy is only a picture, surrounded by an imaginary frame—he dramatically improved their self-control. The kids who hadn’t been able to wait sixty seconds could now wait fifteen minutes. ‘All I’ve done is given them some tips from their mental user manual,’ Mischel sa[id]. ‘Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.’”

The Marshmallow Larva: A Breathing, Squirming Body-Pillow Companion

Warning: the video below may creep you out excessively. But this is something I think everyone needs to see because of its implications: the ways in which we interact with intelligent technology are evolving so quickly that, though future possibilities often excite us, the nature of these interactions seem equally likely to become bizarre and frightening. Take a look:

Many of you may be wondering what in the world I just asked you to watch. Allow me to explain. As part of his graduate thesis, German designer Stefan Ulrich worked with electroactive polymers (EPAs), a type of synthetic material—similar to everyday plastic—that changes shape in response to an electric current. Researchers have already explored the use of such polymers to make artificial muscles, even inspiring an arm wrestling match that pits an EPA robotic arm against a human. Ulrich, however, decided to take advantage of the material’s unique properties to create a shape-shifting robot of marshmallow texture and color. Ulrich claims the project, which he calls Funktionide, provides its user “with an atmosphere of presence, thus counteracting the feeling of loneliness.” Okay, acknowledging the less than satisfying translation of his native tongue—“atmosphere of presence,” anyone?—we can infer that Ulrich intends the robot as a kind of surrogate companion, one that can help offset loneliness.

Hmm. Even though this living cushion mimics the gentle rise and fall of human breathing, when I look at Funktionide slowly squirming its way towards its owner—or, perhaps, its companion—I think of nothing so much as a fly larva. But maybe that’s just me. Let’s say something like this actually would catch on with a certain subset of the population: is it really a good idea to offer up a featureless—though huggable—larval pillow as a legitimate means of combating loneliness? (This brings to mind the Japanese phenomenon of body-pillow girlfriends, or the disturbing but incredible documentary “Guys and Dolls,” which concerns men who turn to life-size dolls for sexual and emotional companionship; you can usually find it on YouTube.)

Making and maintaining interpersonal relationships with other human beings is not easy for everyone—or anyone, really. For some individuals, it’s especially difficult. There’s already a whole host of therapies for loneliness that do not depend on forming bonds with other people: herbs, dietary changes, exercise routines, anti-depressants and similar drugs, to name a few. And everyone knows cats, dogs and other pets help comfort those feeling lonely or depressed. So if some kind of artificial substitute for human companionship—even something like a squirmy body-pillow—can safely and effectively help people, why not? Well, here’s the real question: is it actually helping? Are substitutes good enough? Do they get to the root of the problem? Are they psychologically healthy solutions? Answering those questions would take a whole separate blog post—a whole book, really—but my intuition says No.

To be fair, Ulrich is not unaware of the concerns his project raises: “The work’s intention is to ask what happens if a product, which was proposed as a relief against social isolation, begins to become the solution. In this way the thesis[’s] intention is to create a picture for discussion, which enables us to question how much we want technological products to satisfy our emotional needs,” his Web site reads.

I think that’s well put. If you’ve seen popular science fiction films like A.I. Artificial Intelligence and Minority Report, then you’re already familiar with particularly vivid examples of futuristic technology designed specifically to “satisfy our emotional needs,” like android prostitutes, interactive holographic girlfriends, and the ability to live out our desires in virtual reality. The problems with such speculative technologies are clear: they effectively drive people away from one another, encouraging convenient and synthetic fulfillment of people’s basic psychological needs—encouraging illusions.

Now, we’ve all heard the pervasive arguments that in today’s world of cell phones and text messages, of e-mail, instant messaging, Facebook and Twitter, we daily deprive ourselves of genuine face-to-face interaction in favor of communication from behind computer screens, avatars and online aliases. But I don’t agree with many of those arguments. Cell phones, e-mail and online social networks have invaluably augmented our ability to communicate with one another. These are immensely helpful tools on which many of us depend—and justly so. Do you really want to go back to the era of Jane Austen, when handwritten correspondence was pretty much all you had to work with, and many a day was passed with palms pressed to the window pane, awaiting the messenger with your beloved’s letter in hand? And how could we give up the opportunity to instantly scrutinize the Facebook profile of a potential romantic interest, a perfectly accurate and impartial means of judgment? Pride and Prejudice 2.0.

What we do need to remember is that we are extremely social creatures, perhaps the most social creatures on the planet (with the possible exception of Bonobos: “Bonobos are peaceful. Aggression is diffused by sex and play”—frisky little apes!). Our social, emotional and psychological needs didn’t exactly evolve to be fulfilled by dolls, robots, computers, or pillows—regardless of how squishy, lifelike or intelligent they are. People need other people. And—at least right now—there is no technology out there that even comes close to matching the emotional intelligence of a human being. Yes, human companionship can be incredibly confusing, frustrating and difficult to understand and navigate; yes, certain individuals suffer a loneliness so great they need therapy, not just company. But there is real danger in substituting interactive technology for human relationships. We all need to learn and grow socially—by taking risks, by making mistakes, by confronting both love and rejection. Our brains expect it, demand it! When technology threatens to become a permanent substitute for the friendships and intimate relationships vital to natural human psychosocial development, that’s when we need to stop and rethink the implications of what we’re creating. Not when we spend a bit too much time choosing the perfect profile picture for Facebook, or abbreviate some words in a text message, but when we spend more time in a virtual world than outdoors (oh wait, maybe that’s already happened…)—or when we wake up with marshmallow larvae breathing silently beside us: that’s when we need to stop and rethink

New Scienceline Blog

You can now see a newer version of my last blog post published on Scienceline.org!

Coming up next: robots that want to be human.

All The Single Babies! Baby Beyonces Beg the Question: How Does Dance Develop?

You may have noticed a recent meme on YouTube: babies dancing to Beyonce‘s hit song “Single Ladies.”

Here’s a couple examples:

(1) Baby Cory (ostensibly the original video that started the meme),

(2) and Baby Ava, who really knows how to cut a rug:

What this got me thinking about is how we learn to dance. Specifically, I’m wondering about the psychology underlying the development of dance and rhythm. I mean, did you see Baby Ava gettin’ her groove on? How can someone so young have such incredible moves? One can’t help but think that something about dance is built into us – or that dance evolved from a group of skills and abilities innate to us as humans. With regard to difference in ability, perhaps some individuals have an inherently higher kinetic intelligence; perhaps some individuals – like Beyonce – are naturally very good dancers. Of course, as with every talent, the time spent practicing is just as important as any natural ability (if not more s0) – but I’m pretty sure Cory and Ava haven’t made it to Julliard yet!

This is all too speculative, though. We need something more empirical. To the research journals!

One of the first studies I came across is not just fascinating, it has an amazing Web site too. (You got to love research scientists that know how to take full advantage of the Internet). The 2008 study, published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, comes from István Winkler and his colleagues in Hungary, Budapest and Amsterdam. Its findings are, essentially, as follows: as demonstrated by measuring electrical activity in the brain, infants not only have the ability to learn and follow a rhythm – they know exactly when a beat is missing; every time a beat was absent from a familiar tune, the babies’ brains produced an electrical response indicating their recognition of the unexpected event.

This study suggests infants do in fact have some innate sense of rhythm. And if newborns come into the world eager for beats, then babies bouncing to Beyonce are just doing what comes naturally. Maybe Cory and Ava don’t quite have the polished style – or quite the same level of motor control – as their favorite musical artist, but their 15 minutes of YouTube fame are definitely testament to the incredible human desire and talent for dance.

Others are studying the psychology of dance, I found, like researchers at the University of Birmingham – who held an entire symposium on the subject in May of this year – and Peter Lovatt at the University of Hertfordshire, who is looking into which kinds of dance moves women prefer in men. Smaller, more controlled moves are far preferred to large, chaotic, random motions.

I personally love psychology research that takes on something as universal, something as elemental to human culture, as dance. So often it seems psychology is reduced to a list of disorders and the quest to find the right combination of drugs and therapy to combat them; in the eyes of Hollywood and TV – in the eyes of the public – psychiatrists and psychologists are often perceived as clueless, pretentious and completely useless when it comes to actually helping anyone; psychology is often picked on as one of the “softest” sciences, as more philosophy and mumbo jumbo than actual data and empirical truth.

But psychology isn’t just about understanding what goes wrong with the mind; psychology is about Understanding the Mind. Psychology is – like our sense of rhythm – innate to us; we are all natural born psychologists, curious about human nature and behavior, about what’s going on inside that head of ours and what’s going on in other people’s minds. And all the shortcomings psychology faces as a “true science” are due to an especially intriguing fact: psychology is the only science in which the primary object of study and the primary tool to study that object are one and the same. After all, psychology is the attempt to study the human mind using the human mind. So, yeah, difficulties are going to arise, which makes psychology’s successes all the more amazing.