POLITICS
09/18/2015 01:13 pm ET Updated Sep 18, 2015

The Scientist Who Taught Cookie Monster Self-Control Has A Warning For Congress

Walter Mischel, who devised the famous "marshmallow test," worries future scientists won't get the money to do something similar.

WASHINGTON -- Among the characters on Sesame Street, Cookie Monster is perhaps the most simplistic. That furry guy loves freshly baked chocolate chip treats so much, he can't help but violently stuff them into his big blue face.

But in 2012, something weird started happening to his consumption habits. Cookie Monster began practicing self-control, or at least trying to. In one episode, he told himself that the cookie was a yo-yo and smelled bad, in the hope of curbing his cravings to prove his worth to the exclusive Cookie Connoisseurs Club. Elsewhere, he recorded a song, set to Icona Pop's "I Don't Care, I Love It," in which he grapples with the difficulties of resisting temptation.

The new disposition appeared to be a nod by Sesame Street executives towards addressing childhood obesity -- First Lady Michelle Obama's gastronomical dogmatism finding its way to our innocent childhood characters. In reality, these executives were taking cues from a scientific research project that predates the Obama administration by four decades. The man who helped them mold Cookie Monster's new persona is behind one of the of the best-known psychological tests of the past century.

The so-called marshmallow test, first started in the '60s, is a seminal psychological study in which young children are given the choice of eating one treat immediately or waiting patiently for two. The research showed that self-control isn't a matter of willpower -- as was and still is popularly believed -- but rather a cognitive skill. This simple finding has had profound impacts, influencing everything from teaching curriculums to parenting philosophies to behavioral economics and, ultimately, public broadcasting. 

On Thursday night, the marshmallow test's creator, the famed researcher Walter Mischel -- who consulted PBS on its gluttonous blue monster -- and his primary collaborators, Yuichi Shoda, and Philip Peake, were feted by fellow scientists and research advocates in Washington, D.C.  Theirs was one of three projects to receive the Golden Goose award, which recognizes odd-sounding scientific studies that paid huge social dividends. 

Inside the Library of Congress, where roughly 200 or so had gathered, a series of lawmakers cheered the scientists and encouraged the audience with pledges of devotion to scientific research. 

"Why are we not looking to double NIH funding today?" asked Rep. Bob Dold (R-Ill.), whose party includes fiscal conservatives not predisposed to more discretionary spending.

But the underlying sense of the evening was one of worry. Under the Capitol Dome across the street, lawmakers were scheming to avoid a government shutdown with just days to go. Even if they succeed, funding for science is almost certain to remain at what people in the room believe is a crisis level. The National Institutes of Health has lost 22 percent of its purchasing power since 2003, thanks to stagnant budgets that haven't kept up with inflation. A brief spending bump that came into effect over the past two years is about to expire. And young scientists now face the worst funding climate in the past 50 years.

Among those projects facing an uncertain fate is the marshmallow test itself.

"Right now it is not federally funded, as a matter of fact," said Peake, who is researching whether the self-control mechanisms will erode without routine application. "It makes it a little challenging. It slows us down a little bit. But we need to get these particular findings out and we then will be pursuing more federal funding." 

Walter Mischel wanted to know how long you could resist these treats.
katerha/Flickr
Walter Mischel wanted to know how long you could resist these treats.

When Mischel first conceived of his research subject in the mid-1960s, he also lacked federal funding. In fact, he was encouraged to ask for financial support from a candy store, since, after all, he was studying their sugary products. Instead, he paid for the experiment out of his own salary as an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University.

Mischel wanted to understand the cognitive manipulations children perform in order to delay gratification. So he constructed a test, first on his three daughters and then at the Stanford campus' Bing Nursery School. Children were seated individually in a private room with a marshmallow placed on the table in front of them. They were then told by a researcher they could eat that one marshmallow or wait until the researcher came back 15 minutes later and have two. They were given a bell to summon the researcher (a way to limit the variable of uncertainty that they might not return).

The findings were poignant and, quite honestly, adorable. Given the choice to eat now or eat more later, kids struggled. Recent YouTube clips of the same experiment show them licking the treat, smelling it, hiding from it and generally being overwhelmed by it. Many gave in.

Years later, Mischel and his fellow researchers had the idea to follow up with their early test subjects. This time they sought and received federal funding. Their initial experiment turned into remarkable science. Children who had shown more ability to delay gratification in that first test had generally turned out to be better students, have better social skills and be less likely to abuse drugs or suffer from obesity.

"It was kind of a hunch and a gamble," explained Peake. "It was the funding that allowed us to do that, that allowed us to take those risks."

Doors of potential research were opened further and federal funding became more steady. Mischel, Shoda and Peake explored whether self-control was a matter of genetics or if a set of cognitive strategies could be developed. They discovered that so-called "low delayers," who couldn't wait for the second marshmallow, could learn to be "high delayers." They pinpointed distraction tactics that worked (like imagining that the marshmallow is actually a picture of a marshmallow!) and those that didn't.

The practical applications for this discovery were quite evident, especially in the field of education. Teachers could devise better ways to maintain a classroom's attention; parents could help their child study algebra without distractions. And, in 2008, a charter school conglomerate approached Mischel about incorporating his findings into their classrooms. Other school systems followed. Soon enough, Sesame Street asked him to be an unpaid consultant.

Cookie Monster proved to be an effective messenger. A study done by the University of Iowa Children's Media Lab showed that children who viewed the Sesame Street clips were able to wait an average of four minutes longer during the marshmallow test when it was subsequently administered. 

"It sustained over a period of time and we looked at other tasks that make up self-control: your ability to inhibit behavior or direct attention. And in most cases the kids in the cookie group did well," said Professor Deborah L. Linebarger, who oversaw that Iowa experiment and has since moved to Purdue University. "We know that after observing behavior on screen, kids will go on and model it… I would speculate that watching that over and over again will contribute to longer term effects."

In order to fully break the myth that stoic willpower is the key to self-control, Mischel wants to reach beyond the living rooms where kids watch PBS. So he wrote a book called "The Marshmallow Test," did the rounds on television (sitting patiently across the table as Stephen Colbert plopped the fluffy treats into his mouth) and is expanding his work to other fields. 

Currently, Mischel's team is collaborating with researchers at Harvard to study economic outcomes connected to self-control. He wants to further explore the role the brain's neural circuits play in all this. He envisions a future in which schools will have seminars in "how to deal with hot emotions," much like they now teach sex ed.

"The finding that delay of gratification, or 'willpower,' is a teachable set of skills is of enormous importance in terms of the message that kids can learn this," he said.

Nearing the end of his illustrious career, he looks back at his research with gratitude that he had a supportive partner in the NIH and the National Science Foundation. And he wonders whether a project with such an obscure premise as his would manage to survive in the current political climate. One could easily imagine Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) putting it on his annual waste list -- "We spent $400,000 to study how kids eat marshmallows!?!"

Mainly, however, he frets for the next generation of researchers who might have a hunch that science discoveries can be found in the consumption of candy.

"The competition for research funds is becoming extremely huge and the amount of funding that's available is being constantly reduced," he said. "The pool of people who desperately need it to do good scientific work is increasing. So yeah, I think there is a crisis and a crisis that will get greater and greater unless Congress and taxpayers realize what they are paying for in research is a gamble that pays off."

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