By Tim Kasser (Knox College)
On the first day of my upper-level personality class, I pose a series of questions to my students. I begin by asking how many of them have ever been in a psychology study; everyone raises their hands. I then ask a few of the students to describe the studies they were in; they typically tell me about such things as filling out surveys or pressing keys on a computer quickly or choosing between different options of potential mates, consumer goods, or goals. I then ask those students to tell me what they believe the researchers have learned about them from their participation in the study. After a pause, they usually reply with statements such as “I have moderate self-esteem” or “I am pretty bad at math problems” or “I like guys with broad shoulders.” Finally, I ask what percentage of their whole personality the researcher has learned about from this one study. That is, if they think about the totality of who they are, what percentage has been uncovered from that one study? The modal answer is well below 1%.
I pose these questions to my students to begin a conversation about the philosophy of reductionism that drives most research in social and personality psychology. I try to help them to see that the philosophy of reductionism holds that if researchers can understand each and every little piece of what makes up the phenomenon of interest (in this case, the person), then those pieces can be combined eventually so as to present a full understanding of the phenomenon. At this point, many of my students, rightfully I think, begin to balk. They say that while reductionism may provide a substantial understanding of pieces, understanding each piece is not the same as understanding the whole person, or how all of those pieces interact to “create” a person.
Anyone with a passing knowledge of the current state of social and personality psychology will probably recognize that my students’ critique of our field is a fitting one. While some marvelously integrative theories and tremendous lines of research have illuminated crucial features of the human being, far less success has been attained in putting it all together, in understanding how to understand a whole person in all his or her complexity, in understanding the seven-way interactions that probably account for people’s on-going behavior at any moment in their lives. Perhaps it is not surprising that the field has accomplished so little in this particular regard, given how little financial support there is for such efforts, how rarely we teach our students how to make this grand attempt, and how rarely we engage in such efforts ourselves.
Having spent most of my professional life in the standard reductionistic paradigm, studying materialism, values, and other constructs, and writing articles of the type found in journals like JPSP and PSPB, I decided to de-prioritize this work for a few years and try my hand at deeply understanding why one person did one thing at one point in his life. I chose to explore why John Lennon wrote the song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds in the winter of 1966/1967. In doing so, I of course wanted to maintain a scientific approach to this question, relying on real data and good theorizing instead of anecdotes and hunches. If we are to have a science of the individual, I believe it must be a science first and foremost.
I began my venture out of reductionism by first describing that which I was trying to understand: Lennon’s song. To this end, I adapted various established psychological techniques (such as linguistic analyses, scripting, and association analyses) in order to describe as fully as I could the song Lennon had created at this particular time in his life. The data I collected from these methods suggested that Lennon’s song: a) was stripped of emotion; b) was highly distanced from the present moment (rather than immersed in immediate experience); c) was organized around a narrative of long-standing importance to Lennon, namely his unsuccessful desire to be close to a powerful female figure; d) used words Lennon seemed to associate with themes of separation, love, sadness, being comforted, hiding one’s feelings, being insulted, jealousy, and death; and e) had musical characteristics Lennon seemed to associate with feeling depressed, being separated, and desiring connection.
I then studied the man Lennon was when he wrote the song. I investigated the facts of his childhood and adolescence, and found that I needed to learn more about attachment theory and grief in order to understand his early life. I read deeply about the year that preceded Lennon’s composition of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, and found that I needed to learn more about the effects of stress, of major life transitions, and, especially, of taking frequent doses of the drug LSD. I also explored what I came to call the “activating event,” the moment that spurred the creation of this song. In this case, that was when Lennon’s almost four-year-old son Julian came home from school with a picture he had made of his friend, Lucy, up in a diamond-filled sky. So I needed to understand more about Lennon’s relationship with his son and his feelings about being a father.
Once I had brought all of this information to bear, I came to conclude that Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, with its manifold characteristics, was created through a complex interaction of Lennon’s attachment style, the way he had (not) grieved over his mother’s death when he was a teen, the stresses he had recently been under, the manner in which LSD had weakened his defenses and allowed long-standing emotional concerns to begin to rise to the surface of his awareness (albeit in a highly disguised manner), and the way in which his own son reminded him of his own childhood. I then set about testing some aspects of this hypothesis on songs Lennon wrote in the 3 years following his composition of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.
As I hope readers can see, the explanation I provided for Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is not a simple one. Multiple types of data-analytic approaches were necessary, numerous theories and research literatures had to be integrated, and, the best I can count, a five-way interaction was at work.
Having now completed the project, my reflections on my experience have left with me with a couple of questions for my field. I wonder if any of us, despite our love of our pet theories and constructs, really and truly believes that anything crucial in our own lives can come close to being fully explained solely by the theory or construct(s) we prefer? And I wonder if any of us truly believes that a discipline which is so dominated by a reductionistic approach and by uni-theoretical, uni-methodological scientific studies can ever provide a full explanation of what it means to be a person?
As a scientist, it seems to me these questions are worthy of further study. And as Alan Elms (in Uncovering Lives, 1994, p. 16) said so wonderfully, perhaps “…it’s time for psychologists to sniff a rose or two, instead of merely measuring the mean attitudes of a thousand-person random sample toward red roses versus white.”
Tim Kasser, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. He is the author of many articles on values, consumer culture, and well-being. His most recent book is Lucy in the Mind of Lennon (2013, Oxford University Press).
Elms, A. C. (1994). Uncovering Lives: The Uneasy Alliance of Biography and Psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.
Kasser, T. (2013). Lucy in the Mind of Lennon. New York: Oxford University Press.
Image Credit: Cover image, Lucy in the Mind of Lennon, Oxford University Press.
Touch as an Interpersonal Emotion Regulation Process in Couples’ Daily Lives: The Mediating Role of Psychological Intimacy
By Anik Debrot (University of Fribourg), Dominik Schoebi (University of Fribourg), Meinrad Perrez (University of Fribourg), & Andrea B. Horn (University of Zürich)
You get home late after a hard day’s work, very tired and maybe not in the best mood. Your partner is at home and asks you how your day was. You begin to recount the day’s ups and downs but feel too tired to even talk about it. So you just fall on the couch and ask your partner to join you and give you a hug. As simple as this hug may be, it helps you relax and the hassles of the day seem suddenly far away.
Maybe most of us know this comforting feeling of the beloved one’s touch, and it seems quite obvious that a hug of your dear one does good. Yet, despite the possible importance of such behaviors, researchers have paid little attention to how a simple touch or hug might influence partners in a romantic relationship.
Physiological research tells us that physical contact can have very positive effects. In fact, massage may lower blood pressure, stimulate development in infants, or enhance the immune functioning; it also reduces depression and aggressive behaviors (Field, Diego, & Hernandez-Reif, 2007). In couples, too, touch seems to have a beneficial effect on several stress sensitive parameters (Holt-Lunstad, Birmingham, and Light, 2008). But is it only the physical contact that matters? Could we get a “massage robot” to enhance our health? Probably not. Recent research underlines the importance of the relationship between the partners being close. For example, the positive effect of simply holding hands on mood and neural correlates in a distressing situation was found to be stronger with the partner as compared as with a stranger. Moreover, the better the relationship quality, the stronger the positive effect (Coan, Schaefer, & Davidson, 2006).
This evidence is based on laboratory studies, but in our work recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (Debrot, Schoebi, Perrez, & Horn, 2013) we examined the effects of responsive touch in couples as it occurs in daily life. To do so, we gave a handheld computer to each partner in 102 couples, and we had them report their experiences four times a day during one week of their normal life. We were surprised to find how frequently partners touched each other in a non-sexual way. In about 85% of the situations where they had been together, they reported having caressed, hugged, or touched their partner in a nonsexual manner. As expected at times of the day when a person indicated having been touched by his or her partner recently, a positive mood increase was reported. So touch not only benefits the body, but also the emotional state of mind. And not only did the touched partner benefit; our findings suggest that touching partners also felt better shortly after they were physically tender with their beloved during the day. Thus, there is a mutual benefit that underlines the importance of interpersonal ways of regulating mood in daily life.
Could it be that this all is a mere consequence of reduced physical stress, totally independent relationship-related processes? Our results suggest otherwise. As one would expect when it comes to interpersonal ways of regulating mood, felt closeness is an important pathway of the effects we observed. In fact, when touching the partner or being touched by him or her, participants experienced increased feelings of psychological intimacy toward each other following this tender contact. Our data suggest that hugging not only strengthens the bonds partners feel, but also in part explains individual’s mood increase in daily life.
Another important finding in our study is that this subtle (but yet significant) increase of positive mood in the normal daily fluctuations of mood of couples is not short lived. Six months after the initial study we contacted the participants again. We found that the ones that had been touched most across the duration of the study improved most in their psychological well-being–so there seems to be an enduring, accumulative effect.
In sum, even small caring touch gesture can have an impact on our emotional and social lifes and these accumulated in benefits that can be perceived even several months later. So, no hesitation: go and hug your partner–you doing something good for both of you!
Anik Debrot has done her PhD at the unit of Clinical Psychology of the University of Fribourg. She is currently working at a Swiss Psychiatric Clinic and training to become a psychotherapist. Her research interests involve emotions regulation, close relationship processes as well as affective and personality disorders.
Dominik Schoebi, PhD., is Associate Professor for Clinical Family Psychology and the Director of the Institute of Family Research and Intervention at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. His research focuses on emotional dynamics in intimate relationships and its connection with relationship quality and stability, well-being and health. In his research, he uses primarily momentary assessment approaches in combination with longitudinal surveys and laboratory interactions.
Meinrad Perrez is Professor Emeritus of Clinical Psychology of the University of Fribourg. Over his career, he has been particularly interested in stress and family processes. His research method of predilection is the Ambulatory Assessment, which he helped develop over the last 30 years.
Andrea B. Horn is senior researcher at the Division Psychopathology and Clinical Intervention of the Institute for Psychology of the University of Zurich. Her research interests encompasses primarily intra- and interpersonal emotion regulation in the context of mental and physical health. Expressive writing, and language use are further research topics of hers.
Coan, J. A., Schaefer, H. S., & Davidson, R. J. (2006). Lending a hand: Social regulation of the neural response to threat. Psychological Science, 17(12), 1032–1039. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01832.x
Debrot, A., Schoebi, D., Perrez, M., Horn, A. B., (2013). Touch as an Interpersonal Emotion Regulation Process in Couples’ Daily Lives: The Mediating Role of Psychological Intimacy. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(10), 1373–1385. doi:10.1177/0146167213497592
Field, T., Diego, M., & Hernandez-Reif, M. (2007). Massage therapy research. Developmental Review, 27(1), 75–89. doi:10.1016/j.dr.2005.12.002
Holt-Lunstad, J., Birmingham, W. A., & Light, K. C. (2008). Influence of a “warm touch” support enhancement intervention among married couples on ambulatory blood pressure, oxytocin, alpha amylase, and cortisol. Psychosomatic Medicine, 70, 976–985. doi:10.1097/PSY.0b013e318187aef7
By Amy Muise (University of Toronto Mississauga), Emily Impett (University of Toronto Mississauga), and Serge Desmarais (University of Guelph)
Sex plays an important role in overall relationship happiness. But, is simply having sex enough to maintain a happy relationship? In a recent set of studies, we looked at the reasons people say they have sex with their partners and how these reasons affect their feelings of desire and happiness with their sex lives and overall relationships (Muise, Impett & Desmarais, 2013, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin).
In our research, we draw on theories of social motivation and consider two broad categories of reasons why people have sex with their romantic partners:
- Approach goals: focused on pursuing positive outcomes a relationship, such as enhancing intimacy or feeling closer to a partner.
- Avoidance goals: focused on averting negative outcomes in a relationship, such as conflict or disappointing a partner.
In our first study, we tested how approach and avoidance goals for sex are associated with sexual desire and satisfaction by having people in relationships read different scenarios and rate the sexual desire, and sexual and relationship satisfaction of the couple members in a hypothetical scenario. For example, a participant would read the following scenario and then rate Kate’s level of desire and satisfaction:
John and Katie have been dating for several months. One night, John and Katie go out for dinner and see a late movie. After the date, they have sex. Katie’s reason for having sex that night is to feel closer to John.
We varied the scenarios in three ways. In some scenarios couples were married for several years (vs. dating for several months), John’s reason for sex was indicated instead of Katie’s, and sex was pursued for an avoidance goal (to avoid disappointing the partner) as opposed to an approach goal (to feel closer to the partner). When the person in the scenario was having sex to feel closer to their partner (approach) vs. to avoid disappointing their partner (avoidance), he or she was rated as having higher desire for sex and, in turn, was rated as feeling more satisfied with his or her sex life and relationship. The results were consistent for both men and women (John and Katie) and for both dating and married couples. In other words, people perceive having sex for approach goals (vs. avoidance goals) as being associated with higher desire and satisfaction regardless of the person’s gender or relationship length.
Our first study provides important information about how individuals perceive the sex lives and relationships of other people who engage in sex for different reasons, but this method does not provide information about people’s actual goals for sex and how pursuing sex for different reasons is association with a person’s sexual and relationship quality. So, in our next two studies we wanted to know how this would play out in the daily lives of real couples – that is, how are a person’s reasons for having sex on a particular day associated with their feelings of desire and satisfaction?
We conducted two daily experience studies involving dating, cohabitating, and married couples to answer this question. Daily experience—or daily diary—studies allow us to look at how day-to-day changes that occur in a couples’ relationship influence how they feel about their relationship. Specifically, we asked couple members to fill out a brief survey every night for several weeks about their relationship. Each day they reported how satisfied they felt in their relationship, how much desire they felt for their partner and on days the reported having sex with their partner they answered questions about their reasons for having sex and their sexual satisfaction.
Across both studies, on days when a person had sex more for approach goals, such as to feel closer to their partner or to enhance intimacy in their relationship, they reported higher desire and, in turn, felt happier with their sex life and relationship. In contrast, on days when a person had sex more for avoidance goals, such as to avoid conflict or their partner’s disappointment, they reported lower desire and, in turn, lower satisfaction. In other words, a person’s reasons for having sex with their partner on a particular day are associated with how they feel about their sex life and their relationship.
The next question we had was how a person’s reasons for having sex were linked to their partner’s feelings of desire and satisfaction. It makes sense that when a person has sex to avoid disappointing their partner, they may feel less satisfied, but the person likely expects that by having sex they are making their partner happy (after all, you are doing it to avoid disappointing him or her). However, we found that having sex to avoid disappointing a partner (i.e., for avoidance goals) is actually associated with partners reporting less desire and satisfaction. In other words, when people “give it up” to avoid negative outcomes their partners have less positive sexual experiences and feel worse about the relationship.
Given that having sex for avoidance goals is associated with more negative outcomes for both partners, is it better to not have sex at all than to have sex for avoidance goals? Not necessarily. Couples reported higher relationship satisfaction on days when they had sex, regardless of their reasons for doing so, compared to days without sex. So having sex for avoidance goals may provide a daily boost in relationship satisfaction compared to not having sex at all (although not nearly as much of a boost as having sex for approach goals!). But, having sex often for avoidance goals does seem to be linked to negative consequences over time. In our third study we followed up with couples four months after they completed a three-week diary study to see how their reasons for having sex over the course of the diary impacted their desire and satisfaction over time. People who had sex more for avoidance goals over the course of the diary reported lower desire and felt less sexually satisfied four months later. More interestingly, their partners also felt less sexually satisfied and less committed to the relationship four months later! So it seems that having sex to avoid negative outcomes may provide daily benefits compared to not having sex, but if sex is commonly pursued for avoidance goals, it negatively impacts the well-being of the relationship over time.
So, in short, “giving it up” to avoid negative outcomes may not actually benefit the relationship.
Amy Muise is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto Mississauga. Her research focuses broadly on sexuality and well-being; in particular, Amy applies social psychological theory to understand how people can maintain sexual desire over the course of a relationship and how couples can have more fulfilling sexual and romantic partnerships.
Emily Impett is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga. Her research focuses broadly on interpersonal relationships and well-being, and she is particularly interested in understanding when “giving” in relationships contributes to versus detracts from the quality and success of relationships.
Muise, A., Impett, E. A., & Desmarais, S. (2013). Getting it on vs. getting it over with: Approach-avoidance sexual motivation, desire and satisfaction in intimate bonds. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 1320-1332.
By Martin S. Hagger (Curtin University, Perth, Australia)
Willpower is something that makes us uniquely human and also makes us very successful in our environment. Self-control contributes to success in school, university, and the workplace, better health, cohesive social and romantic relationships, and positive well-being and quality of life. But, to err is also human, and all of us will have experienced occasions where our urges and desires get the better of us, despite our best intentions. Many of the problems people face in everyday life–such as failing to stick to a diet if trying to lose weight or succumbing to the temptation of a cigarette–stem from lapses or failure of self-control. More serious problems, too, are linked to poor self-control: Drug addiction, criminality, alcoholism, obesity, chronic illness, unwanted pregnancy, sexually-transmitted infections, and compulsive gambling.
Given that willpower promotes positive outcomes and its lack leads to social ills, social psychologists have sought to develop ways to ‘boost’ self-control when temptation strikes. A popular and well-cited recent approach is the ‘limited resource’ or strength model of self-control (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, & Tice, 1998; Baumeister, Vohs, & Tice, 2007). Developed by Roy Baumeister and colleagues, people’s self-control is considered a sort of strength or energy which gives us the ability to control our urges, desires, and impulses, but is limited so only allows us sufficient willpower for a finite period of time. After exerting self-control for a while the resource becomes depleted making subsequent acts requiring self-control difficult or impossible leading to lapses. The state of reduced self-control resources was called ego-depletion.
Baumeister and many others demonstrated the ego-depletion effect using a simple but elegant experimental design, called a dual-task paradigm. In the experiments, participants would be asked to complete two consecutive tasks in different ‘domains’. For the experimental (self-control) group, both tasks would require self-control. For the control group, only the second task required self-control while the first task was usually an ‘easy’ version of the first task used in the experimental group. The self-control tasks were laboratory-based and involved the suppression of thoughts, impulses or emotions. To the extent that the performance of experimental-group participants on the second self-control task was impaired relative to the control group, the ego-depletion effect was confirmed. To date, there are over 200 dual-task paradigm experiments supporting the ego-depletion effect (Hagger, Wood, Stiff, & Chatzisarantis, 2010).
An important outstanding issue for the strength model what, exactly, becomes depleted. This has led researchers to examine possible physiological resources that might explain the ego-depletion effect. One candidate has been glucose, the primary fuel for brain function. Matthew Gailiott and colleagues tested the blood glucose levels of participants performing tasks in the dual task paradigm and noticed a drop in glucose among those engaging in self-control tasks (Gailliot et al., 2007). They surmised that this was indicative of the high demands that self-control tasks placed on energy demands and suggested that this was an analogue for the self-control resource. Intriguingly, they also demonstrated that giving people a glucose drink also improved self-control, suggesting that glucose supplementation improved willpower (Gailliot et al., 2007; Gailliot, Peruche, Plant, & Baumeister, 2009).
The role of glucose as an explanation for ego-depletion has been criticised mainly because blood glucose does not reflect brain glucose levels and the demand for glucose by self-control tasks in the brain is relatively small (Beedie & Lane, 2011; Kurzban, 2010). Researchers have suggested that the ego-depletion effect may be caused by other mechanisms such as the ability to appropriately allocate resources (Beedie & Lane, 2011). In response to these challenges, we proposed that promoting self-control by drinking glucose may be one that is perceptual rather than metabolic. In other words, we thought that perhaps the tasting of glucose acted as a signal to the brain to overcome resource depletion and boost self-control capacity. This was based on research in exercise physiology which demonstrated that ‘rinsing’ the mouth with carbohydrates led to better performance in athletes running on a treadmill (J. M. Carter, Jeukendrup, & Jones, 2004). The researchers proposed that glucose assisted in overcoming fatigue by stimulating the motivational centres of the brain. We proposed that the ‘sensing’ of glucose in the mouth may be the reason why glucose supplementation promoted self-control.
To test this premise we conducted a number of experiments in which participants’ self-control resources were depleted using the dual task paradigm but, in between the two tasks, participants ‘rinsed’ their mouth with a glucose solution (Hagger & Chatzisarantis, 2013). Control group participants also rinsed their mouth but with a sweet-tasting non-nutritive artificial sweetener rather than the glucose solution. This was to ensure that our effects were not attributable to sweetness. In one experiment participants were presented with two plates of food, appetizing cookies and unappealing radishes. Participants in the experimental condition were asked to taste the radishes only and ignore the cookies. Consistent with Baumeister and colleagues’ (1998) original experiments, resisting the temptation to eat the appealing food was considered taxing of participants’ self-control. Participants then completed a handgrip strength task, which required considerable self-control to overcome the discomfort in the forearm muscles and quit. We found that participants in the experimental group that rinsed their mouths with glucose performed much more effectively on the handgrip task relative to participants in the control group who rinsed with the artificial sweetener. Rinsing with the glucose solution seemed to enhance self-control capacity and provide a resistance to depletion. We replicated this in a number of studies. Crucially, we demonstrated that the enhancing effect was exclusive to tasks requiring self control. We did this in experiments where we included a no-depletion control group, and found no glucose enhancing effects for participants who did not engage in tasks requiring self-control. Interestingly, our findings do not seem to be a ‘flash-in-the-pan’, the effect we originally proposed (Hagger, Wood, Stiff, & Chatzisarantis, 2009) has now been supported in similar research elsewhere (E. Carter & McCullough, 2013; Molden et al., 2012; Sanders, Shirk, Burgin, & Martin, 2013).
So what do these findings tell us about the nature of willpower and self-control? One possibility is that the glucose in the mouth may enhance the areas of the brain associated with motivation and better control over impulses. A study by Chambers et al. (2009) demonstrated that rinsing with carbohydrates like glucose led to increased activity in areas of the brain associated with motivation and better cognitive control. Artificial sweeteners had no such effects. It seems that there may be cells in the mouth specifically sensitive to carbohydrates, rather than sweetness alone, that may lead to the ‘sensing’ effects in the brain. One intriguing practical possibility is that these findings may provide a way to enhance motivation quickly and simply. However, there needs to be further investigations on how these substances are best administered – sugar-infused chewing gum, candy to suck in the mouth?
Martin Hagger is John Curtin Distinguished Professor of Psychology in the School of Psychology and Speech Pathology at Curtin University, Perth. He studies processes involved in people’s “self-regulation” of social and health behavior, including how psychological factors such as attitudes, intentions, self-control, action plans, and motives affect their behavior and what health professionals can do to change health-related behavior. His research applies social cognitive and motivational theories to understand and to intervene and change diverse health behaviors such as physical activity, eating a healthy diet, smoking cessation, alcohol reduction, anti-doping behaviors in sport, and medication adherence.
Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252-1265.
Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., & Tice, D. M. (2007). The strength model of self-control. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, 351-355.
Beedie, C. J., & Lane, A. M. (2011). The role of glucose in self-control: Another look at the evidence and an alternative conceptualization. Personality and Social Psychology Review
Carter, E., & McCullough, M. (2013). After a pair of self-control-intensive tasks, sucrose swishing improves subsequent working memory performance. BMC Psychology, 1, 22.
Carter, J. M., Jeukendrup, A. E., & Jones, D. A. (2004). The effect of carbohydrate mouth rinse on 1-h cycle time trial performance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 36, 2107-2111.
Chambers, E. S., Bridge, W. M., & Jones, D. A. (2009). Carbohydrate sensing in the human mouth: Effects on exercise performance and brain activity. Journal of Physiology, 587, 1779-1794.
Gailliot, M. T., Baumeister, R. F., DeWall, C. N., Maner, J. K., Plant, E. A., Tice, D. M., et al. (2007). Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: Willpower is more than a metaphor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 325-336.
Gailliot, M. T., Peruche, M., Plant, E. A., & Baumeister, R. F. (2009). Stereotypes and prejudice in the blood: Sucrose drinks reduce prejudice and stereotyping. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 288-290.
Hagger, M. S., & Chatzisarantis, N. L. D. (2013). The sweet taste of success: The presence of glucose in the oral cavity moderates the depletion of self-control resources. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 27-41.
Hagger, M. S., Wood, C., Stiff, C., & Chatzisarantis, N. L. D. (2009). The strength model of self-regulation failure and health-related behavior. Health Psychology Review, 3, 208-238.
Hagger, M. S., Wood, C., Stiff, C., & Chatzisarantis, N. L. D. (2010). Ego depletion and the strength model of self-control: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 495-525.
Kurzban, R. (2010). Does the brain consume additional glucose during self-control tasks? Evolutionary Psychology, 8, 244-259.
Molden, D. C., Hui, C. M., Scholer, A. A., Meier, B. P., Noreen, E. E., D’Agostino, P. R., et al. (2012). Motivational versus metabolic effects of carbohydrates on self-control. Psychological Science, 23, 1137-1144.
Sanders, M. A., Shirk, S. D., Burgin, C. J., & Martin, L. L. (2013). The gargle effect: Rinsing the mouth with glucose enhances self-control Psychological Science
By Angela Duckworth (University of Pennsylvania)
Marshmallows are everywhere. From the Vanguard newsletter to Sesame Street to the Colbert Report, direct references to the “marshmallow test” suggest this simple task, invented by Walter Mischel and his colleagues a half-century ago to assess delay of gratification in preschoolers, has captured popular interest (Mischel, Ebbesen, & Zeiss, 1972; Mischel & Metzner, 1962).
The challenge of managing impulses when what’s good for us in the long run conflicts with what feels good right now is hardly new. Virtually every philosophical and religious thinker has opined on self-control and its importance to both virtue and worldly success. Of course, these opinions have varied. For instance, both Plato and Mill contended that battles of will were always adjudicated in favor of long-run interests when sufficient reflection and reason were brought to bear on the conflict. Aristotle and Frankfurt, on the other hand, wholly acknowledged the possibility of akrasia, weakness of will in the face of alluring but fleeting pleasures. Empirical research on self-control, which has expanded exponentially in recent years, supports the latter view.
It is, in fact, this burgeoning research literature on self-control that explains, at least in part, why non-psychologists are familiar with the marshmallow task. The Palo Alto preschoolers Walter studied in the 1960s have now passed through adolescence and young adulthood. It is now known that he number of seconds children were able to wait for a larger, preferred treat predicts an astounding array of life outcomes. Separate research using different measures of self-control by Moffitt and colleagues (2011) also supports the importance of self-control for adaptive maturation over the life course. In other words, what Freud conjectured in his Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, has now been affirmed by rigorous empirical research. Specifically, his supposition that successful development hinges upon the capacity to “postpone the obtaining of pleasure, to put up with a little unpleasure and to abandon certain sources of pleasure altogether” (Freud, 1920/1966, p. 444).
While non-psychologists find the delay of gratification research intuitively sound, I have been to more than one meeting where the validity of this task was questioned. Does the task really measure self-control, or does it, for instance, simply index general intelligence? Does it measure approach or reward-oriented impulses more than the ability to manage such impulses? Or, is the task really an index of compliance with adult authority?
To answer these questions, my collaborators and I (Duckworth et al., 2013) adapted the task slightly and administered it to a sample of 56 fifth grade children. We found that the longer children were able to wait for a preferred treat correlated with parent and teacher ratings of self-control but not with other personality traits, intelligence, or reward-related impulses. In a second sample of 966 preschool children in a longitudinal study conducted by NICHD, we found that delaying gratification was related to concurrently measured intelligence. However, the predictive power of the delay task for academic achievement, physical health, and risky behavior in adolescence was more consistently explained by ratings of self-control by parents and caregivers (see Figure 1).
In sum, the evidence we gathered in these two studies suggests that the marshmallow task really does measure self-control.
All measures have their limitations, of course, but since psychological science benefits tremendously from behavioral assays, one might ask why there are so few of them? Why do we researchers rely so frequently on self-report questionnaires when, for many research questions, a behavioral measure is better suited? My guess is that the weeks, months, and years of iterative prototyping required to construct, refine, and validate such tasks is itself a delay of gratification test. I hope that as a field we follow through on our intentions to forgo more immediately rewarding temptations to instead do what is best for science in the long-run. That is, I hope we can exercise the collective self-control to invest in research measures that improve on those of our forebears.
Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Angela studies non-IQ competencies, including self-control and grit, which predict success both academically and professionally. Her research populations have included West Point cadets, National Spelling Bee finalists, novice teachers, salespeople, and students. Angela received a BA in Neurobiology from Harvard in 1992 and, as a Marshall Scholar, a Masters in Neuroscience from Oxford. She completed her PhD in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. Prior to her career in research, Angela founded a non-profit summer school for low-income children which won the Better Government Award for the state of Massachusetts and was profiled as a Harvard Kennedy School case study. Angela has also been a McKinsey management consultant and, for five years, a math teacher in the public schools of San Francisco, Philadelphia, and New York City.
Duckworth, A. L., Tsukayama, E., & Kirby, T. A. (2013). Is it really self-control? Examining the predictive power of the delay of gratifcation response. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39, 843-855.
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