A busy semester it has been. Too busy. Things pile up, the blogs slow down. However, I have found one thing that can get the creative juices flowing: oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. My daughter and I spent Friday afternoon making said cookies. She did the mixing and stirring, I simply stated the amounts. What fun we had.
And then the dough began to exert its jedi mind games. As the mixture took shape in the bowl I could hear a faint call, “Eat me. I’m good,” said the dough. I offered some to my daughter. She said no, which makes me question if she is my daughter (how could a Blegen ignore cookie dough? It’s genetically impossible). Then I realized she is half her mother and it made sense. Willpower. More on that in a bit.
I rationalized my few spoonfuls of cookie dough by thinking, “They’re not cookies yet. They are just dough.” Valid argument, yes? Cookies baked, extra dough in refrigerator. Uh-oh.
On Saturday I heard the siren call again, this time from behind the stainless steel doors of the fridge. ”I’m here, come get me. I have chocolate chips in me.” Never mind that this occurred at 5:30 am.
Here is it is Monday morning and there is a bit less dough in the refrigerator. What is it about cookie dough? What is it about my lack of willpower in the face of such cookie dough? And why was my daughter able to say no? So many questions.
The concept of willpower is an interesting one and as I read an article in the New York Times this morning, more light was shed. We have all heard of the famous marshmallow study of Walter Mischel: he left four year olds in a room in front of a plate of marshmallows after giving a set of instructions. ”Sit here and wait, when I come back you can have a cookie.” He then measured how long kids could wait before diving into the marshmallows. Could they delay gratification? Those that could wait were seen as having more willpower, those that couldn’t, well, they really liked sweets. And this is typically how we frame willpower, and the lack there of. We see those that can resist temptation as being models to follow where we view those that give in as weak. Have you ever looked at an overweight individual while they eat a cookie and thought, “Just put it down’? My point exactly.
Follow up studies have been done on Mischel’s 4 year olds and the ability to delay gratification carries through to adulthood. This ability probably serves them well. However, what about those kids that said, “heck with it, I want a marshmallow and I want it NOW.” I am sure I would have been one of those kids.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, neuroscientists Joseph W. Kable and Joseph T. McGuire, have published some interesting work in the area of willpower (as highlighted in the above Times article). They’ve added a new twist to Mischel’s thesis: that of time. They argue that in the real world we are constantly re-evaluating our decisions based on time and that figures into our decision on whether or not to delay gratification. They state that the longer we wait for a reward, the longer we think we’ll have to wait for the reward and thus, perhaps, re-evaluate our initial decision and rethink it. We may come to the conclusion that the delay isn’t worth it and change course. Let me give you a practical example:
You have decided to go on a weight loss program. You set a goal of losing 30 pounds in 6 months (Not unreasonable, but incredibly challenging). You begin to exercise, pay attention to your food, and generally become more active. Two weeks in you have yet to lose a pound and you begin to re-evaluate. Ever experience this?
In the initial stages of a weight loss program you are motivated, maybe even excited. Think New Year’s resolutions. But then time comes in, goals aren’t met, and those same goals seem so far away. So, you can resist the temptation of the cookie for the first few weeks of the new year (or first day if you are me) but after you fail to achieve your goal as quickly as you thought, the goal seems further away, and the temptation of the cookie looms larger. In the end, you eat the cookie.
As Kable and McGuire suggest, what if we were able to tell you the time component involved in your weight loss? What if we could say “If you don’t eat that cookie, you will lose 0.25 pounds today.” Think how much easier it would be to say no. Kind of like waiting for a train at the airport, when we see the sign that says, “Next train will arrive in 60 seconds,” it is much easier to wait than when we don’t know when that next train will arrive. In the uncertainty of time, we constantly re-evaluate. The weight loss goal isn’t met, instant gratification becomes a better option. ”I will enjoy that cookie now, not sure when the weight loss will come, so it’s time to eat!”
Perhaps those 4 years olds that gave in to the marshmallow weren’t lacking willpower. Perhaps they simply evaluated their situation, thought to themselves, “Why wait, what good will that do me?, I have been told to wait before and look what that got me” and went for it. (Further studies by Kable and McGuire highlight this behavior: when the adult is seen as unreliable, kids eat the marshmallows, but when the adult is viewed as reliable, they don’t). Kids are damn smart. We could learn alot from them.
And I could learn alot from my daughter.
So perhaps willpower is tricker than we thought. Genetics, past experience, present situations all figure in. Nothing is ever as it seems. In my world of food and exercise, perhaps if we do a better job of framing the challenges and time expectations of weight loss, and do a much better job of building in support along the way, we can ease some of the time uncertainty. Then again, who knows.
I have to go eat some dough. It’s almost 7:00 am.