Bringing Up Cookie Monster

To the dictum that the four basic food groups are sugar, salt, fat, and alcohol we may add a zesty youthful ramification: they are cookies, crispies, cola, and combos. As a young boy my nephew preferred carrot sticks to cookies, but statistics are laid down for our guidance, and the “norm” will help explain the extraordinary results of the famous Mischel Oreo Experiment[1].

In it the four-year-old experimental subject sat at a table in a mostly empty room facing a single Oreo cookie and a bell on the table. The subject was to remain seated and wait fifteen minutes after the experimenter left the room in order to receive two Oreos but could ring the bell at any time to receive one Oreo. The experiment ended after fifteen minutes, or whenever the subject rang the bell, ate the Oreo, or stood up.

But the Oreo Experiment was also a longitudinal study that yielded fascinating results: the “resisters”—that is, the subjects who got two Oreos—turned out ten years later to have better ability to “reallocate their attention effectively” and showed “greater executive control.” That should not be a surprise, but consider a third finding: the resisters also had “substantially higher scores on tests of intelligence.”

What does self-control have to do with intelligence? Kahneman reports that Keith Stanovich, who established many of the distinctions in thinking used by Kahneman, divides thinking broadly into two types: the intuitive, rapid sort that saves one from leopards on the savannah and also saves one the time of deliberation; and a second, more deliberative kind. This second kind, which turns out to operate as a kind of back-up system or check on the intuitive, rapid thinking, itself is divisible in two.

The first we might simply call brain power or, following Stanovich, “algorithmic” intelligence—the kind usually measured on traditional intelligence tests. The second is what Kahneman calls “engagement”: the power of attending to a problem rationally or algorithmically so as to minimize the susceptibility to “cognitive errors” that our intuitive thinking leaves us open to.

This power confers an evident advantage, according to Kahneman and Stanovich. One’s intuitive thinking tells one that an Oreo is good; one’s algorithmic thinking tells one that two Oreos are therefore better; but one’s engagement with the Oreo Problem allows one to accept the cognitive challenge of getting that second Oreo.

Now, our intuitive thinking, according to Kahneman, is our preferred way of thought. There is physical and neurological evidence that deliberative thinking is more difficult, exhausting, and stressful. When possible we prefer to loaf at ease and invite our souls to cognition and leopard-looking.

The problem for education is obviously that the harder kind of thinking, as well as the ability to marshal attention that must go with it, takes a discipline that I would say must be practiced. Hence the French custom of making children wait to have their wishes gratified. Hence also our own setting of tasks in school that require not just brain power but sustained engagement for their successful completion:

  • Math problems that require inventive and elaborate work, and that require the work to be shown
  • Essays that require a balancing of factual detail and the control of ideas in a coherent exposition
  • Projects that require recurring systematic deliberate attention
  • Theses that require the gathering and interpreting of evidence in the laboratory, library, or field
  • Discussions that require thoughtful answers to questions, and whose answers will in Socratic fashion be the object of further questioning
  • Writing, including “creative” writing, that requires multiple outlines and/or drafts
  • Games that require thinking “down the road” as well as for current perplexities and challenges.
  • Homework that lasts longer than the Homework Lady requires, during which the student foregoes electronic distraction

If we don’t have these things; if, instead, we have had problems and homework that take seconds, essays written once on auto pilot, inane projects, unchallenging discussions, theses that are daisy chains of quotation and plagiarism, multiple-choice tests requiring only recall and pointing to pass, and games requiring the attention-span of a grasshopper and the strategic skills of Beetle Bailey; what kind of young adults will we end up producing?

[1] I draw my account from Thinking, Fast and Slow by the Nobel Economics Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, p. 46. Though this book is worth reading for its insights into cognition, it is also a charming book because of its remarkable generosity and accessibility that nonetheless do not sacrifice rigor and learning. At a recent faculty meeting I also saw a video of the Oreo Experiment in progress. You can see one, too, by Googling “Oreo experiment.”


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