Monday, January 30, 2012

Self-Control, Will Power or Strategic Allocation of Attention?

“Don’t, The Secret of self-control,” is the compelling title of Jonah Lehrer’s 2009 New Yorker article about strategic allocation of attention.  The story focuses on the 1960s research of Walter Mischell, then a professor of psychology at Stanford University, who was intrigued by the mental process involved in delaying gratification. Many of you who took a childhood development course or a few psychology classes in college probably are familiar with Erik Erikson and his description of developmental tasks of childhood. What Freud called the anal period, Erikson labeled the stage for developing self-control — for learning delay of gratification.

Mischell’s famous experiment involved marshmallows and 4 year olds, rather than toilets and two year olds. The researcher, placing marshmallows in clear view, told the young children they could eat one marshmallow right away or, if they waited a few minutes until the researcher returned they could have two. If the child rang a bell, the researcher would return immediately and the child could eat one marshmallow, but wouldn’t get two. Thirty percent of the kids were able to delay gratification, which appeared to indicate self-control.  Twenty years later in follow up studies, Mischell found that the children, now adults, who had been able to delay gratification showed greater success and fewer problems across the board.

 Mischell determined that the mental processes involved in ability to delay (or not) were simple. Kids who distracted themselves from the marshmallow, did much better than those who focused on the desirable treat. Mischel, quoted in Lehrer’s article said, “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 an 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.” He concluded that the determinant of delay of gratification and self-control was strategic allocation of attention. Patience and self-control was achieved by allocation of attention away from the desired object.  Impatience and inability to delay gratification came from allocation of attention toward the desired object.

H-m-m-m. My mind continues to be zonked with ideas about application of this old/new research and theory and its relationships to decreasing negative self-talk. Also interested in what neuroimagery says about strategic allocation of attention right now. More to come on the topic.

Anyone out there have personal experience with strategic allocation of attention? Please let us know about it.
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