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Friday, June 12, 2009

Psychology: Don't think about it, and you probably won't do it

In a New Yorker article titled admirably simply, "Don’t!" The secret of self-control,
Jonah Lehrer reflects on what investigators have learned about how children develop self-control:
At the time, psychologists assumed that children's ability to wait depended on how badly they wanted the marshmallow. But it soon became obvious that every child craved the extra treat. What, then, determined self-control? Mischel's conclusion, based on hundreds of hours of observation, was that the crucial skill was the "strategic allocation of attention."
In other words, focus of attention.
Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow - the "hot stimulus" - the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from "Sesame Street." Their desire wasn't defeated - it was merely forgotten. "If you're thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it," Mischel says. "The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place."

In adults, this skill is often referred to as metacognition, or thinking about thinking, and it’s what allows people to outsmart their shortcomings. ... Mischel’s large data set from various studies allowed him to see that children with a more accurate understanding of the workings of self-control were better able to delay gratification. "What's interesting about four-year-olds is that they're just figuring out the rules of thinking," Mischel says. "The kids who couldn’t delay would often have the rules backwards. They would think that the best way to resist the marshmallow is to stare right at it, to keep a close eye on the goal. But that's a terrible idea. If you do that, you’re going to ring the bell before I leave the room."
In the adult world, this need for focus of attention is one key reason for the millennia-old practice of religious retreats.

People often say they are going to make more time from their work day to think about the meaning of life. But do they? No, because they can't. They can't stop looking at the In Tray, the way many kids looked at the marshmallow.

Now just put that same person in a room with a chair, a desk, and a work by a serious spiritual writer - and NO phone, e-mail, or visitors - and many people begin to see key patterns in their lives that they had never noticed before. The trick is, as the kids discovered, to lose sight of the marshmallows of life.

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