Are We Born Racist?

Inside the science of prejudice, stigma, and intergroup relations.

How to not overeat on holidays

Applying how children think about marshmallows and pretzels to diets

I don't get supersititious about much, but fortune cookies somehow manage to get to me. They usually come three or four on a little plate at the end of the meal, or if it's take out, wrapped up in a little brown bag. I take time to choose mine carefully: the one that calls out to me, the one that, this time, really holds the secrets of my future within. Never mind all the ones I open are, well, descriptive. Things like "you find beauty in the ordinary," or "you are an outgoing person." Not exactly from the hand of Nostradamus.

But just today, I finally opened up a cookie about the future:

"You will soon have unlimited opportunities."

I was ecstatic-- and then I realized that opportunities don't have to be positive. Case in point: tomorrow, Easter Sunday, I may have Unlimited Opportunites to blow my diet. I'm taking my kids to an Easter Egg Hunt party tomorrow, and the hosts are sure to have plenty of excellent food for the adults as well.

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Which is why today's blog is dedicated to not blowing your diet when the sweet treats call.

Almost forty years ago now, psychologist Walter Mischel posed a choice to a number of five-year olds: you can have one marshmallow now, or you can have two marshmallows later. Almost all of the kids opted for two marshmallows later, and at that point Mischel left the children in a room by themselves with the marshmallows right there in front of them. The "Marshmallow Test," as it has been popularized, is famous because the number of seconds that children were able to wait ended up predicting some very significant outcomes in adolescence, including SAT scores and academic achievement.

Though many parents fret about whether their preschoolers have it in them to delay gratification or not-- fearing this marshmallow test really holds the secrets to their child's future within-- the more important story is actually not who can versus who cannot delay gratification, but rather, what are the cognitive strategies that lead children to be able to delay. This is the more important story because then, the ability to delay gratification becomes a teachable skill rather than an inborn ability (this blog talks more about the importance of thinking of abilities as teachable rather than innate).

Mischel was able to figure out that the ability to delay was related to the way the children thought about the marshmallows. When children stared at the marshmallows with their mouth watering, thinking about how chewy and tasty they were, they could barely contain themselves and gobbled up the rewards. However, Mischel also noted that many of the children who were able to wait for the two (rather than the one) marshmallow interacted with them differently-- they began to examine their texture, or play with them like little blocks, or explore their bounciness. In other words, the good delayers were able to focus away from the consummatory aspects of the reward, in effect thinking about them differently.

Mischel put this idea directly to the test-- in one experiment, he told half of the children they could focus on how yummy and chewy the marshmallows tasted, whereas he told the other half of the children they could think about the marshmallows as little clouds. In a different version involving pretzel sticks, he told half of the children to focus on the crunchy, salty taste of the pretzels, and he told the other half to think about the pretzels like little logs. The results showed that when the children focused on the marshmallows as clouds or on the pretzels as logs, they were able to wait significantly longer than the children who focused on the tastiness of the treats.

These classic studies are important because they tell us that the way we mentally represent objects really does matter for subsequent behavior. This is a critical insight for anyone who, like me, is on a diet, because it puts us in control of the external temptations that are out there. Of course, I don't plan to start playing farm with the chocolate bunnies tomorrow, or pretend to make omelettes with the chocolate eggs. Rather, I simply plan to track my calories.

Just about any diet plan out there advocates counting or tracking caloric intake as one of the central habits of an effective dieter, noting that tracking keeps us accountable to ourselves. But among the less noted reasons for why tracking calories works is that it literally changes the mental representation of the foods you eat. Very much like Mischel's experiments, tracking can help you focus attention away from the consummatory (yummy) qualities of what you are about to eat (e.g., chocolate eggs, or the pizza), and instead focus on its other qualities. Some people might be struck by the percentage of your daily caloric allowance this one indulgence will take (you mean ONE chocolate egg can take 10% of what I'm allowed to eat today?), while for others the combinations of nutrients may stick out (HOW much saturated fat does this pepperoni pizza slice have?). Whatever the particular feature of the food it is that you settle on, the point is that you are thinking about the food analytically, rather than consummatorily. This, by itself, is an important representational change that may give you just enough space to make the right decision for you.

Which does not mean you can't enjoy your food; on the contrary, you can enjoy it more fully knowing that you have thought about what you are eating. In other words, better to have enjoyment after thoughtfulness than to have regret after enjoyment.

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Copyright 2011 by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton all rights reserved. 

Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, Ph.D., is a social/personality psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

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