Positive Vision - Day 16
Rabbi Avrohom Neuberger
Our weekly excerpt from the book "Positive Vision"
Day 16 - Of Men and Marshmallows - The Power of Distraction
We mentioned in passing yesterday that an effective strategy against the forces of tumah is simply distancing oneself from the place of the nisayon so that it takes effort to perform the aveirah.
In fact, leaving the area is not effective merely due to laziness but due to another consideration totally. Indeed, it may be the single most powerful means of exercising self-control.
This point emerged forcefully almost by accident, as a byproduct of a fascinating social experiment involving discipline and self-control.
Common sense dictates that someone who has better control of his impulses is more likely to live a successful life - but is this, in fact, true? This notion was put to the test in 1972 and the results were very conclusive. And they bear directly on our topic.
A researcher decided to examine the age at which a child begins to exercise willpower, so he submitted his four-year-old child and a group of his friends to an ingenious little test.
Each child was placed in a small room with a marshmallow or a sandwich cookie on a desk in front of him. An adult entered the room and told the child that he would return in 15 minutes. If the treat was still there when he came back, the child would get two treats. The researcher left, and the children’s conduct was secretly monitored.
Some failed to resist the temptation for even a minute. As soon as the adult left the room they ate the snack. Others held out a little longer - on the average, seven minutes - before succumbing. One little tyke licked the cream out of the sandwich cookie and put the two sides of the cookie back together in an attempt to trick the adult. But there was one group of children, about 30 percent of them, who successfully delayed gratification for the full 15 minutes.
Some ten years later, it occurred to the researcher to see how these children were faring. This led to a series of follow-up studies of these former preschool- ers over the course of several decades. It was discovered that those who were able to wait the 15 minutes were significantly less likely to have problems with behavior, drug addiction, or obesity by the time they were in high school, compared with kids who gobbled the snack in less than a minute. The gratification-delayers also scored an average of 210 points higher on the SAT! They had more successful marriages and higher salaries on average.
Clearly, willpower and the capacity to delay self-gratification play an essential role in creating a successful life.
However, this finding is also quite discouraging in that it indicates that our future success in life is “locked in” at a young age.
This point was presented to the researcher and he disagreed with this conclusion. He maintained that despite his finding, he still believes that people can change. But they should study his experiment to learn how. “Look closely at those who resisted temptation and observe how they did so.”
So how did the mighty tykes manage to resist temptation? In a word, they distracted themselves.
Some turned around, others covered their eyes, yet others composed a little tune or kicked the desk. It turns out that these types of activities, these minor ploys to distract oneself from the nisayon) in this case, the treat(, is a remarkably effective method of self-control. [We will see later (Day 67) why this so effective.]
And these ploys can be taught and learned.