Happy Halloween: What Candy Teaches Us about Distraction and Self-Control

So my Halloween candy might not be half gone already if I'd had more fun unwrapping it.  If only I'd read about this new study where people popped sweets in their mouths, rolled them on their tongues but didn't eat them.  Apparently having so much fun playing with the candy they didn't have to eat it.  Yes, those with loads of self-control had "fun" with the no-taste taste test and later didn't feel compelled to gobble up the sugary snacks.  Using self-control is just a yuck a minute:  
"We found that participants who are usually high in self-control perceived the initial candy task -- which involved touching, but not eating Skittles and M&Ms -- as an opportunity to have fun (they were playing with candy)," the authors write. "Participants who are usually low in self-control, however, perceived the initial candy task as an obligation to work." (From sciencedaily.com)
Simply inserting the word "fun" in the directions supposedly pumped up the self-control of the low self-control crowd.  Meaning, they didn't sneak as much candy later.

So I'm not sure where this leaves us this Halloween.  Isn't the whole Trick or Treat thing entertaining enough already?  Now we got to make not eating the stuff a more pleasurable experience. How about playing bingo with the Sweet Tarts.   Stringing together some Candy Corn necklaces.  Maybe a Tootsie Roll Toss?

My kids seem to forget the haul of candy after a day or two.  Except for my youngest who couldn't get over his good fortune last year.  People just give you candy? Honestly?? I know, hard to believe with the twin specters of Childhood Obesity and Juvenile Diabetes not to mention peanut allergies. 

Speaking of kids, sugar, and self-control, who can forget The Famous Marshmallow Study.  In the 1960s version kids were left alone with a marshmallow and told that they could eat it right away or if they waited a few minutes, eat two.  Drum roll...those who waited went on to better behavior, higher SAT scores and presumably more successful careers, relationships, yada yada yada.  It's been replicated time and time again. You can read about it in an article by Jonah Lehrer in The New Yorker last year.   By the way, self-control often turns out to be a better predictor of academic success than intelligence.  Go figure.

So how could some kids delay eating the marshmallow?  Did they hate marshmallows?

Nope.  Psychologists also "discovered" that, surprise, every kid wants the marshmallow.  The ones who resist it for longest do so because they distract themselves, singing songs, day dreaming, listening to their inner voices.  That's what boils down to self-control here.  The ability to forget about thinking, in this case, thinking about marshmallows.   That's some good metacognition there.  And possibly the explanation for the Skittles and M&M study above - the 'self-control" was nothing but distraction, yes, fun distraction. 

The good news, kids and adults can learn this skill.  Sure there's a genetic basis for distraction and self-control too, but let's be optimistic.  I can't believe I'm writing that we need to teach kids to distract themselves when they're so darn good at it with all their multi-tasking, texting, IM'ing, etc.  Fact is we need to teach the younger generation how to distract themselves so they can gain some self-control in their distracted lives.  Of course their distraction devices prevent them from not only learning how to distract themselves the good old-fashioned way but also learning how to delay gratification. 

For better or for worse there's probably already an App for teaching distraction.  Let me know if you can find it.  That is if you don't get too distracted in the App store.  Talk about needing some self-control, kid in the candy store.  But most of us parents are already masters of distraction, distracting other people.  We re-direct the focus from hunger, scratchy socks, the Silly Bandz in the check-out line.  

Anyhow, whatever you do this Halloween, don't tell the kids NOT to think about the candy.  However bad the whining, the sugar coma, please avoid shouting:

 And you can forget about eating another piece of candy!!!  Don't even think about it!!!! 

Why?  The White Elephant Study.  Telling someone not to think about a white elephant makes them think of little else.

There, and I don't even feel like eating a Kit Kat.  What Kit Kat?


TherExtras said...

Now I can't get dark chocolate out of my mind...unless I ponder on how wonderfully you depicted the self-distraction of the children with the marshmallow. Takes real neurons in learned organization to do that. And, is closely associated with intelligence, isn't it? Seems I remember that was used in the EQ research - no?

Happy Halloween to you and yours, however you treat it! Barbara

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Oh forgot about EQ - the Emotional Intelligence stuff, right on! Loved that book(s). Yes, Daniel Goleman wrote about all those good non-IQ traits. Maybe it's time he wrote a new edition for the digital generation! Happy Halloween to you too!