Oct 08

“The Marshmallow Test”: What’s the Real Lesson?

 Whether you eat the marshmallow at age 5 isn’t your destiny. Self-control can be taught. Pamela Druckerman, New York Times, about The Marshmallow Test

Walter Mischel says the key to success is the patience to delay gratification. Oh…I want some delayed gratification now! Stephen Colbert

In advance of the publication of psychologist Walter Mischel‘s The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, the Pamela Druckerman has explained his central theme: We can overcome our childhood tendencies to go for the quick marshmallow (or alternative treat) rather than wait and get two.

In the legendary experiments that continue today but started back in the 1960’s, “(t)he children who succeed turn their backs on the cookie, push it away, pretend it’s something nonedible like a piece of wood, or invent a song. Instead of staring down the cookie, they transform it into something with less of a throbbing pull on them.” Adults (and other kids) can learn this type of self-control too.

It’s all in the way our brains work, of course. In brief, the prefrontal cortex has to be called more into play.

It’s also in the making of if-then (or prior contingency) plans. How this applies to kids is explained by Mischel (Education Week):

…(W)ith practice, the desired action becomes triggered automatically when the ‘if’ cue occurs: If I have an assignment to complete, then I will turn off my text messages until I am done; if the dessert tray arrives then I will order the fruit salad; if I get angry then I will take a deep breath and count backward from 10 before I act; if I get teased at school, then I will pretend I don’t hear and walk away; if I am about to start daydreaming then I will look right at the teacher and pay attention. It’s simple but effective, and with practice can become routine.

Selected Quotes

Self-control is crucial for the successful pursuit of long-term goals. It is equally essential for developing the self-restraint and empathy needed to build caring and mutually supportive relationships.

What we do, and how well we control our attention in the service of our goals, becomes part of the environment that we help create and that in turn influences us. This mutual influence shapes who and what we become, from our physical and mental health to the quality and length of our life.

Who we are and what we become reflects the interplay of both genetic and environmental influences in an enormously complex choreography. It is time to put away the “How much?” question because it cannot be answered simply. As the Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb noted long ago, it’s like asking, “What’s the more important determinant of a rectangle’s size: its length or its width?”

Jul 24

“American Savage”: Outspoken Advice-Giver Dan Savage

Dan Savage, the outspoken author of American Savage, is a gay guy with a musical theater degree who for 20 years has been penning a popular sex-advice column, “Savage Love,” and for five years a related podcast.

Other accomplishments:

American Savage

His new book is called American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Love, Sex, and Politics. Publishers Weekly states, “America’s most in-your-face sex columnist and gay-rights activist comes out swinging in these pugnacious, hilarious essays. Savage…proffers more unvarnished and often sacrilegious bedroom and relationship advice…”

Interviews Related to American Savage

A Publishers Weekly interviewer queries Savage about a bit of “unconventional” advice he gives on the issue of marital infidelity. Savage’s reply is consistent with his personal and general view that being “monogamish” (somewhat open to having other partners at times) is a valid choice:

It’s going to happen, so why not do it right? I’m not condoning serial adulterers who are abusing their partners or putting them at risk. But there are times when cheating can save a marriage—for example, when one spouse is seriously disabled and the other, to stay sane, gets his or her needs met elsewhere, discreetly. Or maybe it’s a terrific marriage except for very divergent needs for sex. It overemphasizes the importance of sex to say that, if a marriage is working in every area but sex, a spouse must divorce first and cheat second. There are times when people should cheat first and divorce not at all.

To the question, “Why do you think you get so many calls from straight guys asking about sex with women?,” interviewer Elizabeth Denton, Time Out, gets this from Savage: “Straight boys feel like, as a gay man, you have this secret inside scope on what girls are doing and thinking. I’m like someone who’s never been to London but could draw you a map of the Tube. I’ve never seen a clitoris up close, but I can tell you exactly where to find it.”

Advice-giving is likely to have its pitfalls, and here’s one piece he’d take back, he tells Benoit Denizet-Lewis, The Good Men Project: “I once told a woman who didn’t like her husband, or wouldn’t leave him, to encourage her husband to take up drinking and driving. You really don’t want to suggest that someone take up drinking and driving in print. It’s a sure way to get several million angry letters.”

Denizet-Lewis also found out that Savage’s own go-to for receiving advice was his mom, who died in 2008. In an unrelated question about the last time he “really cried,” the answer? When she died.

And the book dedication goes to his male parent: “For my father, who lives in a red state, watches Fox News, and votes Republican — but loves me and mine just the same.”

The thing he’s most proud of in his life is his nuclear family, he tells Denizet-Lewis. “I know that sounds so Rick Santorum–y, but I’m most proud of my little family that exists despite the odds.” The adopted son of Savage and his partner is now 15.

Publishers Weekly, reviewing American Savage: “Savage is that rarity, a liberal—verging on radical—who defends his positions with steel-trap logic and scornful humor laced with profanity and stripped of politically correct cant. But in his own way he’s a champion of ‘family values,’ which emerge in warm domestic scenes with his husband and son, in moving reflections on his mother’s death, and in his common-sense understanding of sexual fulfillment as an anchor for stable relationships. Underneath Savage’s scabrous, bomb-throwing exterior beats the heart of a softie.”