The Power of Distraction

Jonah Lehrer, a contributing editor at Wired, writes about Walter Mischel's studies of successful people and predictions that can be made in childhood. Forget willpower, it's about distracting yourself.

Walter Mischel at Columbia University is probably best known for the marshmallow task. It's a very simple experiment he did at the Bing Nursery School at Stanford University between 1968 and 1972, where you bring a four-year-old into the experimental room, and he'd say, "Kid, you can have one marshmallow right now, or if you can wait for about 15 minutes while I run an errand, you can have a second marshmallow." And he offered the kids marshmallows or cookies, pretzel sticks, and what he found was that there's tremendous variation in terms of how long kids can wait; every kid wants the second marshmallow or the second cookie, but some kids will eat the marshmallows before the scientist leaves the room. Some kids will wait two minutes. The average waiting time is about two and a half minutes, and some kids can wait the full 15 minutes.

The question is, what allowed some kids to wait? And it wasn't that these kids wanted the marshmallow any less or that these kids had more willpower. It's that these kids knew how to distract themselves. These are the kids who would cover their eyes, turn their back, sing songs from Sesame Street, pretend to fall asleep.

My favorite kid is a boy with neatly parted hair, and he chose the Oreo cookies, and you can watch him. He's just really struggling with it. It's an agonizing, agonizing wait, and he carefully surreptitiously looks around to make sure no one's watching him. There's a large one-way mirror right to his left that he conveniently ignores. He picks up the Oreo cookie, carefully unspools it, licks off the white cream filling, puts it back together, puts it on the table, and then he could wait 15 minutes, no problem. Mischel notes that the kids who can wait what they’re better at is the strategic allocation of attention. They know that my willpower's weak and if I'm thinking about this yummy, delicious marshmallow, I'm going to eat it. What I have to do is not think about it; I need to distract myself.

Then you do this longitudinal study, and you find that the kids who could wait at the age of four — and this is the most predictive test you can give a four-year-old, much more predictive than an IQ test — it predicts their behavior in school, how likely they'll do drugs, their body mass index. The SAT score of a kid who can wait is 210 points higher than the SAT score of a kid who can't wait. It's an incredibly predictive test. Here's this very simple experiment, this very simple protocol you give to four-year-olds, and it turns out to explain a lot about their behavior as teenagers, adolescents.

Mischel and his collaborators are now flying 55 of these kids out to Palo Alto — they're now in their 40s — to put them in brain scans, and to see the different brain areas that underlie this ability to exert willpower, but the larger lesson is that what we think about willpower is actually completely wrong.

People think about willpower as gritting your teeth, but willpower actually is profoundly weak; no one can really resist a marshmallow if you're thinking about how sweet the marshmallow is. What these people are better at is — and this is how the scientists describe it — is the ability to control their thoughts, to control the contents of working memory.

Some people are much better at that, and that's a crucial life skill that allows you to — my favorite television show's on, but I need to study for the SAT, I need to do homework. How can I resist this temptation? It allows you to control your temper, to not lose your temper when someone calls you a name. It really is a very, very important life skill, and that's what Mischel was able to measure at the age of four.

I've been thinking a lot about that, and now Mischel 's trying to go back into the schools to see if he can teach this to kids. Once kids leave kindergarden, we stop thinking about them in terms of character, in terms of these personality traits, but it turns out these are crucial things, and schools shouldn't just be in the business of teaching algebra, of teaching literacy, teaching spelling.

They have to be in the business of teaching kids how to think, teaching them these metacognitive rules. Teach kids how to structure their thoughts, how to do a better job of controlling their mind, and that's going to have a huge payoff in terms of academic skills later on. I've been thinking a lot about that. Mischel's just a magnificent and very meticulous scientist.