How well can you delay instant gratification? For example, can you practice the degree of self-control that Gustav managed? He posed next to his special Twitter dog treat without gobbling it up until released from his commands “stay” and “leave it.”
With this act, I was hardly trying to replicate the famous 1972 Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. But I was curious to see if a somewhat well-trained dog could resist temptation—of something I knew he really wanted.
What’s the point? Well, how well can you resist the temptation of checking your smart phone or other digital device these days? Even when you’re not hearing any buzzes, feeling any vibrations, or other cues, can you leave it alone? I admit I have extremely twitchy fingers. And I know I’m not alone.
Last month I took an informal poll of the 200+ participants at the start of my Tweet This: Leveraging social media for organizational change talk at the ACMP conference. Almost all of us had checked email or posted to a social networking site within the past 30 minutes. Many of us—including yours truly—had done so within the past five minutes. (I was able to restrain myself from checking during the rest of my talk. I’m not that boorish—at least right now. And I’m not coordinated enough to tweet and talk at the same time.)
The twitchiness got me wondering….Should someone update the Marshmallow study, focusing on adults using digital devices rather than children craving a delicacy such as marshmallows, Oreos, and pretzel sticks?
The purpose of the original Marshmallow study was to understand when children started to develop the ability to practice self-control and defer gratification.
The follow-up studies provided the more eye-opening results, which are worthwhile to consider regarding our seemingly addiction to digital devices. It turns out that the children who were able to delay gratification at the age of 4 (that is, wait 15 – 20 minutes for their one treat so they could then get two treats) managed better later on in life. When tested by the researchers, the adolescents were psychologically better adjusted, more dependable persons, and, as high school students, scored significantly greater scores on their SATs.
So what are the implications—if any—for us adults tethered to our digital devices? How are the distractions and preoccupations of the devices affecting us? Are we any less responsible? Are we as steadfast in our actions and attitudes? What about our powers of concentration? And what are we missing when we turn to our digital devices rather than to the people and world around us?
And if we’re always connected, are we getting the quiet time to think and reflect that the brain researchers say we need to tap into our deeper emotions? As Nicholas Carr, author of the book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains and the article Is Google Making Us Stupid?, points out, “If we’re constantly interrupted and distracted, we kind of short-circuit our empathy.”
And besides the mental health facets, what about the physical health? The eye strain? The Blackberry thumb syndrome?
Also, what are the implications of how we interact with other digital device addicts, especially in the work environment? How do we grab people’s attention to explain something or get their commitment to take action? How do we have meaningful discussions during meetings if everyone is taking fleeting looks (or scratch that, is absorbed in reading the screens of their iPhone, Blackberry or Android)? And who has empathy for anyone?
In the Marshmallow experiment, of the 600 kids who participated, one third were able to defer gratification long enough—15 to 20 minutes—to get the second marshmallow.
Can you exhibit that type of impulse control as an adult?