The Marshmallow Connection: What Determines Success?

Although he didn’t realize it then, when Walter Mischel and his team turned their attention to preschoolers at the Bing Nursery School on the campus of Stanford University in the 1960’s, he unleashed a tidal wave in cognitive science, which is still being felt today.

The experiment was pretty straightforward. A preschooler was seated at a table and presented with a single treat of some kind—a cookie, a piece of candy, or—most famously—a marshmallow. The child was told that the supervisor would soon be leaving the room. If the child could resist eating the marshmallow until the supervisor came back, they would get a second marshmallow. If they instead ate the marshmallow, there would be no opportunity for another. 

Mischel was conducting a basic test in postponement gratification, and whether five year olds were able to demonstrate any kind of strategy for self-restraint, the willpower necessary not to gobble up that first tempting marshmallow.

As you might imagine, some children ate the marshmallow almost as soon as the supervisor left the room. Some ate the marshmallow before the supervisor even left the room. But some were able to hold out for that future reward, even for as long as 15 minutes. To do this, the children employed a myriad of methods. It turns out that by four years old, some children have already developed fairly sophisticated techniques for delaying gratification.

Among the participants were Mischel’s own three young daughters, and a number of their classmates. Over subsequent years, dinner conversation at the Mischel table included his daughters catching him up on how little Sally or Billy was doing in the years since the test. 

As Mischel’s daughters shared their anecdotal observations, Mischel started to detect what seemed like a pattern. The kids who had resisted the lure of that first marshmallow, at least according to Mischel’s daughters, appeared to be faring better in school and bonding better with their classmates than the gobblers.

On a hunch, Mischel launched a longitudinal study. Ten years after the experiment, they tracked down the original children and measured their success and happiness across a number of areas. The longitudinal study was conducted every ten years after that for the next thirty years. 

In his book The Marshmallow Test, Mischel explains how, a dozen years after the test, those who had “exhibited more self-control yielded less to temptation, were less distractible, were more intelligent, self-reliant, and confident and their SAT scores were significantly higher. By age twenty-five to thirty, those who had delayed longer in preschool self-reported less risky drug use, higher educational levels, greater income, had a significantly lower body mass index, and divorced less.”

This experiment has been replicated many times all over the world—and not just because there is something innately hilarious about watching a tiny child struggling to hold themselves together in the face of a single sweet. Again and again, researchers have come to the same conclusion: those who adapted and adopted early strategies for self-restraint fared better than their counterparts in a variety of ways.

Not sure you would’ve been a two-marshmallow kind of kid? Don’t worry: Mischel is quick to point out how his research has shown that self-control is, in fact, a skill that can be both learned and taught.

In next week’s post, we’ll discuss strategies for gobble-proofing your own willpower.

Shaky Pedestal Syndrome: Why Our Heroes Let Us Down

General Patraeus, Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Jonah Lehrer, Tanya Harding: an incomplete list of those who, at the peak of their careers, and the peak of their honors and accolades, fell from grace.

The names and details may change, but scandals are forever. No matter what, you can rest assured that someone somewhere is about to take a tumble in the eyes of their local community—or the public at large.

Yet each time it happens, many of us are stunned. Those we saw as the embodiment of a myriad of virtues—courage, self-restraint, fair-mindedness, perseverance, and humility—fail to live up to the ideal. It can feel almost like a betrayal: just who are these individuals, and how did they manage to dupe us?

A more realistic question might be, “Why do we believe virtuous traits are immutable? Why are we convinced that, once demonstrated in one arena, a quality will apply across the board to a variety of very different circumstances?”

Tiger Woods shows amazing self-control on the golf course. Shouldn’t that carry over into his marriage?

And the answer would be “of course”—if behavioral traits were fixed and predictable. In truth, they are neither as helpfully demonstrated over and over again by headlines everywhere from tabloids to the Times.

Behavior is complicated. Our brains wire up for outputs depending on a complicated set of conditions and circumstances, some biological, some environmental. Woods might show great emotional restraint on the greens because he has put in thousands of hours practicing specific actions, reinforcing specific decisions. His marital fidelity did not benefit from such drills.

Essentially, we become good at what we routinize. The more consistency to our practiced patterns, the more predictability. In neuroscience, it’s known as Hebb’s rule: ‘neurons that fire together, wire together.’

A girl who gets A’s on every math quiz is likely to do well on a math test. But her demonstrated commitment in solving for x in no way proves she will be a reliable choice to watch your children.

And yet these are exactly the kinds of illogical assumptions we all make, about everybody from potential babysitters to our beloved sports heroes. We jump to conclusions all day long, then act surprised when our hastily-built pedestals come crashing down.

Disappointment is not inevitable, but assuming a trait will apply from one domain to another is essentially a coin flip. And, like a series of coin flips, a bunch of heads in a row doesn’t create a predictable pattern, nor does it portend the inevitability of a coin coming up tails.

This illusion is what famed economist Daniel Kahneman would call a System 1 failure. The emotional part of our brain will always tend towards sweeping generalizations. As a survival strategy, it makes sense, but it carries a price: that little sinking feeling in your stomach when those predictable patterns turn out to be not so predictable after all.

So who will our next fallen hero be? There’s only one guarantee in this world: it won’t be who you expect…

Procrastination, the McClellan Problem, and You

General George B. “Little Mac” McClellan was the Union force commander during the Civil War. Beloved by his men, and a stickler for training, you’d think it might be him that we remember over Ulysses S Grant, former Union general and later the 18th President.

But Lincoln eventually made Grant the Northern army’s leader for a single, rather important reason: Grant was willing to engage the enemy. McClellan, despite an overwhelming number of troops and material, appeared to be allergic to battle.

McClellan’s strategy seemed to be waiting for just the right moment when the perfect nexus of geography, troop force, weather, and adequate supplies would present itself. History tells us that early in the war it never did—or more importantly, that it never does.

Which brings me to glucose, the energy our brains and bodies run on. As a resource, it’s something our system tends to be stingy with.  Most of us expend energy only when we deem it absolutely necessary. Not a whole lot of us choose to jump about like small children, treating our bodies like human pogo sticks, and treating energy as the renewable resource it is.

Instead we marshal our energy, leaving plenty in reserve for a later battle, McClellan style. This strategy seems prudent; sitting on the couch watching TV at night leaves me plenty of energy to run out of the house if it should happen to catch fire, or take a couple of quick laps around the block—that is, if I weren’t so busy watching TV.

In what appears to be the body’s natural glucose conservation mode, we tend to emphasize the unforeseen event that we are saving our resources for, the Future Self experience, if you will.

Procrastination, on a biological level, the hoarding of glucose, might be our collective Achilles heel when it comes to getting things done, but when seen through the lens of self-preservation, it makes sense. Like the Boy Scout motto, “Always be prepared.”

However, before we raise our glasses in self-satisfaction to not getting things done, consider that there was a reason Lincoln replaced McClellan. Waiting as a central strategy produces zero results. So when we hold on to our reserves, there is a price to be paid.

It’s the Grants among us that carpe diem, Future Self be damned. And although you might question Grant’s wartime strategies, and his subsequent presidency, we know about the former shopkeeper from Galena, Illinois, precisely because he managed to get stuff done. Think about that iconic photo of him: war-weary, resolute, cigar clenched in his right hand, committed to the very end.

General George B. McClellan, on the other hand, was a man who prided himself on his ability to plan for just about any contingency that came along. Civil War historians will forever regard him as the prince in waiting.

Unfortunately, there is no cigar for the Prince of Procrastination.

The Strange Case of Phineas Gage, redux

In January of 2013, I wrote a post on one of neuroscience’s most famous cases. New details make it necessary to retell the story. It’s the tale of railroad foreman Phineas Gage.

Imagine a beautiful day on September 13, 1848 in the Vermont countryside. It’s about 4:30 in the afternoon. James K. Polk, “Young Hickory”, is the current president and the Civil War hasn’t ripped the country apart yet. The hottest thing in modern technology? The railroad train. To that end, a Rutland Burlington railroad crew is finishing up a long day of drilling holes several feet deep into the stubborn concrete granite.

Now the work of tamping explosive charges down into the holes has begun. When the explosives are discharged, the granite will be blown apart and the next section of track can be laid. It’s dangerous and deadly work if you’re a tamper. Mistakes are almost always fatal. 

Five foot six Phineas Gage is a compact but strong tamper. He’s had his tamping rod engraved with his initials and built to his exact specifications by a blacksmith. It weighs 13.5 pounds, and it’s been honed to a sleek taper and carefully polished smooth. Looking at it, you might never guess its purpose. Gage is considered to be among the best at what he does. By all accounts a gentle and gregarious man, he is the kind of guy you can count on, the kind of guy you want as your friend or neighbor.

The dinner hour is fast approaching and an exhausted Gage leans over a newly drilled hole, takes up his custom made tamping rod and gives the explosive charge one last push.

But something has gone horribly wrong. The charge explodes on contact. In a split second, Gage’s iron rod has blown a hole through his left cheekbone and shot upwards behind his left eye socket, tearing through his prefrontal cortex, out the top of his skull. The rod lands with a thud some twenty-five yards away, sticking neatly upright in the ground, tapered end down.

Gage has been knocked violently backwards. Splattered in blood and bone fragment, somehow he remains conscious despite having lost what will later be referred to as “half a teacup’s worth of brain matter.”

What happened next? According to Sam Kean in Phineas Gage: Neuroscience’s Most Famous Patient, Gage staggered to his feet, where he was helped to a nearby wooden oxcart and transported back to his hotel room in the town of Cavendish, Vermont.

 When the doctor finally arrived, Gage was sitting on the front porch of the hotel to greet him. “Here’s business enough for you,” he allegedly said. But his condition was worse than the jaunty greeting implied; for weeks, he suffered fevers and infection, his condition touch and go. But Gage didn’t die in 1848. He recovered enough to last another twelve years.

Here is where the story gets fuzzy because of conflicting newspaper reports. 

With the loss of a good portion of his prefrontal cortex, Gage is reported to have turned into a raving manic, driven by desire, prone to fights and fits of obscenity.  His damaged upper brain meant he’d lost all self-restraint. The tamping iron had robbed him of more than just a half teacupful of brain matter; it had taken his willpower.

The problem with this account is there is really no solid evidence to substantiate it. All we really know is that Gage went on to make a living as a horse coach driver (a job that demonstrates a significant amount of manual dexterity), and died in 1860.

Because Gage’s skull was preserved and available for public viewing, he has become a cause célèbre. People make pilgrimages from all over the world to see it at the little Warren Anatomical Museum at Harvard.

This includes neuroscientists, who have recently analyzed Gage’s skull using sophisticated fMRI technology. Their goal? To figure out which region of his brain was destroyed, what was the net effect on his rational decision-making, and what was the subsequent effect on his willpower.

But the skull was badly damaged by the tamping rod and the entry and exit holes are jagged and asymmetrical. Many bone fragments are missing. This makes any plotting of the tamping rod’s exact path inconclusive. Despite specific claims made about Gage, the lack of evidence puts this case more in the realm of speculation than hard science.

So it’s unlikely we’ll ever understand Phineas Gage’s frame of mind after his bizarre accident. But one thing is certain: he had one heck of a headache.

What Do Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, and Lynyrd Skynyrd Have in Common?

When it comes to Carol Dweck’s concepts of mindset, northwestern Alabama might not be the first region that leaps into your mind. And yet sitting on the north bank of the Tennessee River is an unlikely success story, almost a perfect illustration of just how much can go right when growth-minded attitudes are in place.

Growth mindset, of course, is the attitude that skill and intelligence can always be improved with effort. It frames challenges as opportunities, failures as lessons to be learned, and success as a result of pushing oneself. On the other hand, fixed mindset holds talent as something inborn and innate. The prospect of failure is a terrifying specter lurking over every risk, threatening to show you were never that great after all. 

Even if you’re familiar with these ideas, the story of Muscle Shoals, Alabama is a beautiful illustration of the importance of attitude.

In 1965, songwriter and musician Rick Hall opened up a recording studio in sleepy Muscle Shoals called FAME Studios. Hall grew up in abject poverty and was driven to make a name for himself. Armed with more determination than money, he recruited young unknown local players as his studio musicians, most likely because they were available and—more importantly—because he could afford them. 

Ultimately, Hall’s lineup featured Roger Hawkins on the drums, guitarist Jimmy Johnson, Barry Beckett on piano, and bassist David Hood. Desperate for success, Hall set his early expectations high. Some, like producer Jerry Wexler, would later characterize him as overbearing and tyrannical, but he did get results. The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, or “Swampers” as they came to be known, worked hard and put in long hours.

FAME’s first big break came in 1966, with Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman.” A bunch of local boys had scored their first big hit, but instead of letting themselves get overwhelmed or complacent, the Swampers vowed to bring their very best to the next session.

The Swampers were young and inexperienced. They recognized just how much they didn’t know. At the studios of Memphis, Nashville, Chicago, and New York, the industry standard was for musicians to work off of pre-written arrangements. Not all of the Swampers could even read music; they looked at chord charts and went by feel.

Dweck points out that people with a growth mindset are much more likely to assess their talent accurately. It’s far easier to make an honest judgement when your ego and very sense of self-worth aren’t tied up in the answer. This understanding is crucial; you need to see where you’re at before you can plan the steps that will take you where you want to go. And the Swampers were ready to take those steps.

Working off chord charts and instinct left plenty of room for improvising and experimenting, and that flexibility was part of the key to their success. The Swampers were constantly growing as musicians. Whenever a recording artist arrived in the studio, it was a new challenge: how could they best serve the song? What playing style would make the singer shine? They became the ultimate chameleons, mastering an incredible array of genres.

Eventually, the Swampers would leave FAME and open up their own recording venture, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. To their new location, a converted blinds factory at 3614 Jackson Highway, they brought the same dogged determination and tailor-made approach to their backings.

Their first album, Cher’s aptly-titled 3614 Jackson Highway, was a critical success but a commercial disappointment, peaking at only 160 on the charts. But the Swampers didn’t despair. Worrying that you could lose “the gift” is, of course, a hallmark of a fixed mindset.

The Swampers left their mark on music history. Look back through the iconic hits of the 1960‘s and 1970‘s and the Swampers are everywhere, playing with Aretha Franklin (“Respect”, “Chain of Fools”, “I Never Loved a Man”), The Rolling Stones (“Brown Sugar”), Wilson Pickett (“Mustang Sally”), Etta James (“Tell Mama”), Paul Simon (“Kodachrome”, “Loves Me Like a Rock”), The Staple Singers (“I’ll Take You There”), Bob Seger (“Old Time Rock and Roll”), and Lynyrd Skynyrd (“Free Bird”), and many more.

The risk of striking out on their own definitely paid off, sometimes in new and exciting ways. “They were able to get a lot more writing credits, and production credits,” notes Carla Jean Whitely, author of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. “The Swampers really wanted to move into producing. Well, by virtue of owning the studio and being the guys who had to make it work, they stumbled into more producing opportunities.” When the Rolling Stones came to town, Jimmy Johnson found “they just sort of assumed he would step into that role. So he did.” The result was the classic “Wild Horses”, among others.

The Swampers made such an impression on Lynyrd Skynyrd, they famously earned a shout-out on 1974’s “Sweet Home Alabama”:

“Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers;

And they’ve been known to pick a song or two.

Lord they get me off so much.

They pick me up when I’m feeling blue”

Whether or not you are yourself a fan of Lynyrd Skynyrd, one thing is clear: growth mindset rocks.

The Science of Power Cramming

When you hear the term “spaced learning”, you might think it has to do with learning that takes place while you’re “spaced out.’  But spaced learning is the less-than-catchy phrase used to describe a scientific breakthrough in memory acquisition.

Learning is fundamentally about sticking something into your memory for retrieval later. During a learning episode, information first moves into your short-term memory and creates a new neural pathway. If that pathway is repeatedly stimulated, it triggers the brain to transfer the information into your long-term memory. The neural pathway acts as both conduit and code for that information upload. Therefore, repetition is key to long-term learning.

This process has been well known in the scientific community for some time. But what if there was a way to speed up learning, to learn an entire history module that would normally take a month, in about an hour? In his Scientific American article “Making Memories Stick”, neuroscientist Douglas K. Fields says it’s possible.

 In 2005, he and his research team were doing experiments to determine how much time was optimal in terms of the brains ability to absorb new information.

Due to the limitations of attention bandwidth, 15 to 20 minutes was assumed to be the gold standard for human focus and concentration. Much more than that and the brain begins to move into default mode—daydreaming or mind wandering.

Knowing this, Fields team began to experiment with how much time was required between learning sessions. In other words, how long should you wait before engaging in a second learning module? They were surprised to discover the interval of time between learning sessions was even more critical than the actual time devoted to a learning module. So what’s the magic number? About 10 minutes.

It appears that 10 minutes is the optimal time the brain needs for information upload and the subsequent transition into long-term memory.  Spaced learning is all about leaving the right amount of ‘space’ between learning modules.

If that sounds strange, this might sound even stranger:

In order to facilitate the uptake of information, Fields suggests that you do some sort of physical activity, like playing catch with a ball or modeling with clay during the 10-minute break portion. This kind of rote motor activity allows the part of the brain involved in memory acquisition to tune up and operate without interference from competing thought processes.

In an article titled “Spaced Learning” by Angela Bradley and Alec Patten, they outline an ideal spaced learning setup:

• Teacher input of key facts/information 

• 10-minute break

• Student recall of key facts/information 

• 10-minute break

• Student application of key facts/information

This sequence of input, recall, and application, followed by breaks of physical activity, leverages how the brain assimilates information and provides a shortcut for rapid learning. This is how a month’s worth of lessons can be uploaded into the brain in about an hour.

It should be noted that this kind of learning is exhausting and is not something that can be executed on a daily basis. But when the chips are down and you need to integrate a lot of information quickly, Fields’ team has demonstrated the efficacy of spaced learning.

It brings a whole new meaning to the idea of cramming for finals. If by cramming, you mean throwing a ball around between cram sessions.

The Insula: Behind the Scenes at Your Brain’s Attention Switchboard

Have you ever been in a meeting where no matter what, you can’t stay focused? You know it will be disastrous if you actually succumb to sleep, especially when there’s the possibility of drool involved, but you’re still fighting not to nod off.

If there’s a window in the room, it’s pure torture. You dare not look out for fear of ‘going all Walter Mitty,’ and finding yourself in full-blown daydream mode, helping the industrious wasp on the other side of the glass build its nest. (Okay, yes, I looked out—but just for a second. Wasps are fascinating little creatures, aren’t they?)

You can thank your brain’s insula for all of this, according to Daniel Levitin in his new book The Organized Mind. To conserve energy, your brain automatically slips into what neuroscientists call the ‘default mode,’ named by researcher Marcus Raichle. This is a natural state somewhere between sleep and conscious attentiveness.

Whenever you pay attention, your brain is burning glucose reserves. You literally do pay for that attention, and the cost is that you can’t give that attention to something else. It’s a zero sum proposition. The average human’s bandwidth for attention is about 120 bits per second. To put that in perspective, when you’re engaged in a conversation, you’re burning up about 60 bits.

Therefore, two people talking to you at the same time uses your full 120 bits, and you can’t process anything else. Which is why, when a third person tries to butt in and start their own conversation, “fuhgettaboutit.”

In a 2010 paper, Levitin, along with Vinod Menon, describes the insula as acting like a mini attention routing switchboard. (Think old-timey phone operators.) Essentially, it’s a binary switch, absorbing information and instructions from all over the brain and then regulating that input by either connecting up your central executive system (the home of reason, speculation, planning, assessment and focus), or instead plugging into your mind-wandering system of energy conversation, free association and daydreaming.

Interestingly, unless your insula is detecting life-threatening danger signs, it tends to bias towards mind wandering as the default.

This explains why when you sit down in an early morning meeting and inhale a jelly donut, your brain comes online like a storm trooper. The sugar in the donut spikes the glucose in your brain, then burns out. That resulting energy crash, combined with drone of the speaker’s voice, sends a message to your insula: time to change the channel.

You take one final glance out the window and your insula, sensing no real present danger, switches your mind into the default zone, home of Walter Mitty and the land of ‘future self.’ So in a way, when you dose off in a boring meeting, it’s not entirely your fault.

If only the brain came equipped with a drool sensor.