Don’t Bite: Self Control and the Classic Cookie Task

I.  The Room

Imagine you're four years old.  A tall lady takes you by the hand and leads you into a small white room.  She seats you at a table by yourself, and kneeling down beside you, produces a fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie from her apron pocket.  "We're going to play a little game," she explains kindly.  "You can either eat the one cookie now, or, if you wait, I'll bring a second cookie soon, and you can eat both of them."  But what happens, you ask, if you want to eat the first cookie now?  "Well... then you only get one cookie, sweetie."

At which point you decide: this lady sucks.

But it's too late for second thoughts.  The tall lady has already stood, and with a wry smile, has crossed to the door, closing it quickly behind her.  A clock sounds loudly on the wall.  For the next fifteen minutes – or however long you last – you will be subject to the most sadistic trick in the modern psych manual [1].  You will fidget.  You will sit on your hands.  You will pace back and forth, and talk to yourself, and talk to the wall, and pull at your hair.  And then, after what seems like an eternity of wasted time – though the clock records mere minutes – you will snatch up that cookie, and without another moment's hesitation, bite in.  One bite, then another, until the last.  Suddenly guilt-stricken, you will look around to see if someone, somewhere, is watching.

Someone is.

By now the tall lady will have reappeared at the doorway, her apron pockets empty, and your mother will whisk you away from that awful place.  (Cookies will never again taste so sweet...)  Twenty years later, having spent long hours forgetting those misplaced moments, a new crop of experimental psychologists will add insult to injury, and call you, and ask pointed questions about your education, your personal life, and your current salary.  "Of course I'm a failure..." you admit.

Years later still, there will be articles in high brow magazines and well considered newspapers that proclaim that the outcome of that experiment – the “delay of gratification” experiment, they're calling it – can predict your entire life.  The test, they're saying, is a test of self control, and the longer you waited, the better your SAT scores, the better your attention span, the better your relationships, the better your sex life, and so on [2].

Your mother calls.  “We always knew,” she says.  “You couldn't wait!” she says.

Well, that explains it.  Your inglorious fate was predestined by an unfortunate biological glitch –

Or was it?

The classic cookie task is often reported to be a measure of self-control, which – in the able hands of the mainstream media – makes it sound like a test for a hardwired personality trait.  Either you have it, or you don’t, and if you don’t, then you’re screwed (or so the logic runs).

But to be fair, it's not entirely clear that what the test measures is self-control, or even what that means, if it does.

Now you're giving me a blank look.  But it's obviously a test of self-control, right?  You give a kid a cookie, you see whether or not she eats it. Isn't that how we define “self-control”?

In the language of “My Happy Toddler” books and Dr. Phil, undoubtedly yes [3].  But when it comes to nailing down how what we usually think of as “self-control” fits with what we know about the mind and behavior, the question gets a whole lot murkier. Certainly, it's fascinating that various life outcomes link up with how long it takes the kid to bite, but – why?  What is this test telling us?  Is it a measure of brain function and maturity?  A measure of learning and strategy?  Or is it tapping into something else entirely?

In other words: we call this ability “self-control” – but what is that?

Walter Mischel, the renowned experimental psychologist who pioneered the original experiment, has in various papers, characterized the cookie task in various ways: as a distraction task that requires a strategic behavioral response [4]; as a measure of cognitive control and cortical development, that relates to the ability to freely allocate attention [5]; and as a window into impulsivity [6].  This suggests that “self-control” – at least as we understand it in the context of the task – is something that arises out of a subtle, but complex interplay of cognitive and developmental factors.

“Subtle, but complex.”  Hmmph.  Not altogether satisfying, is it?

This got me to wondering: there are a variety of factors that contribute to the behavior we see in the task, but how much does each variable matter?  For instance, is being good at strategizing what counts, or is it mostly a function of cortical maturity and control?

Working through this question requires a little background, but at this point, I think it’s safe to assume that – as a reader of this blog – you’re already well-acquainted with some useful distraction techniques [7].  However, you may not be as well versed with the term “cognitive control,” so I’ll begin by giving that a once over.

[This is the first in a five-part series that is to be continued…]

The Daily Fact Check

[1] As a child of the eighties, I'm not nearly old enough to have witnessed the evil theatrics of Zimbardo's prison experiment, or any of those morbid stress experiments at Harvard in the sixties, of the type that produced Ted Kaczynski.  We have human subjects boards now and all that, so tempting children with cookies is (for the most part) as dirty as it gets.

[2]  Was kidding about your sex life. Here’s the intel:  "...those children who delayed longer as preschoolers were rated in adolescence by their parents as significantly more attentive and able to concentrate, competent, planful, and intelligent.  They also were seen as more able to pursue goals and to delay gratification, better in self-control, more able to resist temptation, to tolerate frustration, and to cope maturely with stress.  ...both their verbal and quantitative SAT scores were [also] significantly related to seconds of preschool delay time." (Mischel, Shoda & Rodriguez, 1989, p. 936)

[3]  Kidding!  I’m not even sure there’s a series called “My Happy Toddler” – but there should be.

[4]  Mischel characterizes the task as a distraction task that requires strategic planning:  "When the rewards are exposed, delay becomes highly frustrative for preschoolers, so that to sustain their goal-directed waiting, they must use effective strategies, for example, by distracting themselves... When preschoolers are not given [such] strategies... they must generate and execute such strategies on their own, and therefore, their behavior should reveal most clearly individual differences in this type of competence." (Mischel, Shoda & Rodriguez, 1989, p. 935)

[5] Mischel characterizes the task as a measure of cognitive control and prefrontal development:  "In both [the delay of gratification task and a classic measure of cognitive control], performance requires controlling a prepotent response… Performance on the two tasks may rely, in part, on similar neural circuitry. The [cognitive control measure] has been linked to the development of fronto-striatal and related circuitry… performance in the [two tasks may] reflect similar biological and neural systems. " (Eigsti et al., 2006, p. 479)

[6] Mischel characterizes the task as a measure of impulse control:  "The challenge has been to clarify how individuals, while remaining capable of great impulsivity, also become able to control actions for the sake of temporally distance consequences and goals, managing at least sometimes to forgo more immediate gratifications to take account of anticipated outcomes." (Mischel, Shoda & Rodriguez, 1989, p. 933)

[7] Even the basement-level intellect of my seventh-grade P.E. coach grasped that the boys might avoid awkward moments in gym shorts with a little self-distraction.  As she grunted to one red-faced fellow caught in a salute, “think of your dead Aunt Marta.”

5 responses so far

  • Coturnix says:

    What an amazing inaugural post, Melody! Welcome to the wild, untamed science blogosphere ;-)

  • Yes, splendid... I predict you have a fine future in 'cognitive science' (...if, such a thing exists ;-))

  • aidel says:

    Very interesting. I hope that you go into more detail (in future segments) about the huge relevance of culture and SES in experiments such as these. It seems to me that something is not quite right about the design of this experiment. I think it was a mistake to use food (and a delicious cookie at that) as motivator/reward. Isn't it possible that some of the kids were just plain hungry? And if at home, the availability of food is inconsistent, any kid will eat the cookie sooner rather than later, trust me on that last point.

    The whole experiment actually reeks with American WASP-y-ness, the Protestant Work Ethic, and normative corollaries and conclusions. And the researchers went on to build a huge house of cards (all the way up to "intelligence") on one crummy cookie.

    And most importantly (you mentioned this, too) they didn't even bother to share some key definitions, such as self-control, it's relationship to planning, higher SAT scores, intelligence, etc. or if the study was meant as a round-about way to look at impulsiveness -- how silly! -- why not take the study through the front door and study people who engage in impulsive behavior. Self-control? Then study ex-long term, heavy smokers who have not smoked in five or more years. Now THAT'S self-control.

    Looking forward to learning more about this!

  • Coturnix says:

    Yup, it is WEIRD that most of what we think we know about human behavior comes from WEIRD people (see: )

  • It's not just most of what we know about human behavior (that is coming from WEIRD people), but much of what we "know" about human biology and physiology as well!...

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