Monday, September 19, 2011

Sweets, Self-Control, and Spirituality

I guess I've had marshmallows on the brain lately.

Shortly after making a batch over the Labor Day weekend (seen at left. They turned out really good, if I say so myself), I was reminded of a classic study in delayed gratification, involving marshmallows, that was conducted some 40 years ago.

Basically, they studied a bunch of four-year-old kids, and offered them marshmallows. The deal was, the child would be given a marshmallow, which the child could either eat immediately, or wait while the attendant left the room for fifteen minutes (the marshmallow was left in the room alone with the child) and get two marshmallows (provided the child didn't eat the marshmallow before the attendant's return). Obviously, many children immediately ate the marshmallow in front of them. Some others tried to wait, but were unable to make it through the full fifteen minutes before taking the tempting treat. About 30% of the children were able to wait and get their second marshmallow as promised.

The study then followed those children as they grew up, and it turned out that the children who were able to wait for the second marshmallow tended to get better grades and otherwise perform better throughout life. The ability to delay gratification stayed with them and yielded clear benefits.

This weekend, I was intrigued to hear of a more recent study, this one involving chocolate chip cookies rather than marshmallows. Although there was a similar set up whereby those being tested would either eat the cookies immediately or resist the temptation to do so, it was discovered that those who resisted had less ability to resist other temptations in the short-term. They performed less well on tests of self-control and mental focus later that day. It turns out that we have a finite amount of energy available to resist temptation, and this must be replenished in the short term (apparently glucose is one physiological way of replenishing this specific energy, which is convenient/ironic when the temptation is itself a sugary sweet).

However, over the long term, the self-control can be exercised so that one develops an increasing ability to resist temptation over time. This "temptation resisting muscle" can be exercised in a number of different ways, and as one might expect, several of those methods are inherent parts of religious practice. Thus, religious adherents are trained to be able to resist temptation (I hasten to clarify that this does not mean that non-religious people cannot resist temptation or learn self-control. Many such people no doubt "exercise" in other ways. Rather, I'm simply pointing out that the "exercises" for building up energy levels to resist temptation conveniently overlap with many religious practices.).

I haven't seen any attempts to work through how these two studies might inform each other, but a few observations seem worth noting, perhaps especially for those of us who have religious convictions that would encourage self-control in others. While the long-term benefits of self-control are certainly valuable, the short-term limitations in the energy required to sustain self-control are real, and deserve attention. While there are ways to build up those energy levels (including spiritual disciplines and practices), this is not something that is done quickly or easily. Building self-control is, itself, an exercise in delayed gratification, and parents or others who would seek to instill such values in their children would do well to recognize the work that must go into it.

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