Abstinence and Marshmallows

What, you might ask, could the two possibly have in common? The answer is not so unusual: both have been used to test self-control in humans, and can tell us something about more fundamental aspects of our personalities.

In a now-famous study conducted at Stanford in the 1960’s, children were put in separate rooms and given a marshmallow or another treat of their choice by a researcher. The researcher told them that after giving the instructions, he would leave the room for a short while, during which time the child would be left alone. (They would actually be observed by camera during that time.) If the child wanted to eat the treat, there were two official options: 1) ring a bell on the desk, at which point the researcher would come back immediately, and the child could eat the treat, or 2) wait for the researcher to come back on his own, at which point the child would be allowed to eat two treats. Once the researcher left, it became clear that there was a third, unofficial option: just eat the marshmallow.

While this was a fascinating experiment in its own right – in a video from a similar study, you can watch the children trying desperately to resist the third option – the follow-up study about a decade later made it even more interesting. The children who had succeeded in waiting for the two marshmallows turned out to be teenagers who were better adjusted, had fewer problems in school, and also had (wait for it, Princeton) higher SAT scores. In other words, there was a strong correlation between self-control seen at a very young ageand academic success that came years down the road. Another study using fMRI as well as behavioral measures, has linked self-control with intelligence.

Abstinence, in its own way, is the reverse of the “marshmallow.” If we are in a situation where it is a live option to engage in sex or other forms of physical intimacy, we have a choice between “now” and “later.” In today’s culture of excessive self-affirmation, we often hear, “If it feels right, go for it.” What this neglects to mention is that something which “feels right” at the time can often feel even better in the future. For those of us waiting for a stable, long-term relationship, such as marriage, to have sex with another person, choosing the “later” option can pay dividends by training us to, in the meantime, live without that instant pleasure. This is by no means masochistic; rather, it is a recognition that the delayed pleasure will be all the more meaningful when it does come.

Why the Top of Fine Tower is the Best Place in Princeton to Ask Someone Out

Even though our emotions are generally not things we can consciously dictate, we consider ourselves fairly accurate judges of which emotions we’re actually experiencing. As it turns out, we may not even be as good at that as we thought. It appears that in certain circumstances, we tend to wrongly attribute, or assign, certain emotions to our bodily state, when in fact that bodily state is reflecting another emotion entirely. One such example is the infamous “Suspension Bridge” experiment, published in 1974.

The experiment had a rather unusual setup. It took place on two different footbridges which spanned a river at different points. One was a suspension bridge over a canyon, made of boards and cables, which wobbled easily and had low handrails. This bridge was meant to create a feeling of anxiety and unease in the participants. The control condition was the second bridge, which was much lower, wider, and sturdier.

As male passersby walked off the bridge, they were asked by a female interviewer (described in the paper as “attractive”) to fill out a questionnaire. When the men had finished, the interviewer then gave them her number so that if they wanted, they could call her to talk more about the experiment. The number of phone calls that the interviewer subsequently received was supposed to indicate the level of attraction experienced by the participants.

The results were that the men who were interviewed on the suspension bridge were at least twice as likely to follow up and call the interviewer as compared to the control group (the “safe” bridge). The researchers hypothesized that the more dangerous bridge created a state of fright and physiological arousal in the passersby. This arousal consisted of increased heart rate and blood pressure, elevated levels of adrenaline, and so on, which is not unlike the state caused by physical attraction. Thus, after the passersby had encountered the female interviewer, they were likely to attribute the cause of their aroused state to the attractiveness of the interviewer, rather than the thrill of crossing the suspension bridge.

The study was far from perfect, as the researchers admitted, but the results lent credence to the idea that we are not always the best judges of our own emotions. At this point it is not well understood what, if anything, we can do to make the process of identifying our emotions less fallible. One prediction you might want to keep in mind: feeling nervous about a first date with someone could actually make you feel more attracted to that person.


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The Complementarity of Love and Sex in the Brain

A historical side effect of falling in love has been increased production of love poetry. Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” shows us “the lover/ Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad/ Made to his mistress’ eyebrow.” The reason behind this may simply be that we humans feel the need to express strong emotions, especially positive ones like love. But could it be that being in love actually makes us more creative?

The answer is ‘yes,’ according to a recent study at the University of Amsterdam. The researchers were interested in seeing how thinking about love vs. thinking about sex could affect the way the brain processes information.  The participants, all college students, were primed either to think about love (separate from sex) or about sex (separate from love). This was done for the former group by having them think about taking a walk with their partner or by showing them words like “love” and “loving.”  The latter group was told to think about someone they were physically attracted to, or shown words like “sex” and “eroticism.” Both groups were then given a series of questions from the GRE to answer.

The results were that those in the “love condition” scored much better on the creative questions, while those in the “sex condition” scored better on the analytical questions, leading the authors to conclude that love and sex do indeed affect the way we think. Their explanation for these results draws on a distinction often made between two different ways that we can process information: local and global.

With local processing, you are very much in the present moment, focused and processing the details of your environment or whatever problem you’re contemplating. This state of mind lends itself to analytical thinking, where details and logical structure are important. With global processing, it’s as if your brain has hit the “zoom out” button and is seeing the larger picture. This enables you to think more holistically, make connections that you couldn’t before, and represent concrete objects as abstract concepts. Renowned neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran spoke at Princeton recently, and he emphasized how making these less obvious connections is a key part of human creativity: it gives us the ability to relate higher-level concepts to one another, to generate and understand metaphors, and so on.

According to one theory, thinking about the long term is a way to trigger global processing. In this case, being in love often brings on thoughts about the long term: how you want to stay with your partner not just for months but for years to come, or what your plans are for your future together. These kinds of thoughts cause global processing to kick in. Sex, or relatedly, lust, triggers local processing and a concentration on the “here and now.” You have a more goal-oriented mindset and focus more on strategies and details.

Lest this be misinterpreted, one type of thinking is not “better” than the other. We need both creative and analytical thinking on an everyday basis, whether we’re deciding what classes to take, telling jokes, doing problem sets, or watching a movie with friends.
So the next time you catch yourself daydreaming about your beloved, you might as well take advantage of your state of mind. Crack open your laptop, and get started on that writing assignment due tomorrow – the creative energy won’t stay around forever.

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