Something many a blog writer has experienced is the final completed post was not the intended final product that they had originally thought of.
This is normal – maybe it’s because we start we a sentence of inspiration, a witty title that can explore many possibilities, or a few a skeletal ideas, when it comes to fleshing it out it goes to places we never expected.
When you start with an idea, you start with an assumption, and when you start putting in the desktop research you find evidence that can disprove this.
For the academics amongst my audience, you’d say this is the basic process for any thesis, you have a theory, which you then put to the test.
It can be quite disappointing though when what you thought what was right, is wrong – this happened to me while thinking about what my next post should be about.
While on holiday I was reading the book Spartan Up!: A Take-No-Prisoners Guide to Overcoming Obstacles and Achieving Peak Performance in Life, by Joe De Sena, which made reference to “taking the cookie.”
This was a famous experiment where kids were put in a room an offered a cookie, with one simple catch – if they could hold off eating the cookie for 15 minutes they would be rewarded with another one.
The book made further mention that they study showed those children who could delay gratification were more successful in life.
Except that wasn’t quite true…
The study the book referenced is first recorded as being done at Stanford University in 1970, but the prize was a bit of pretzel rather than a cookie.
Also there were various other conditions that influenced the outcomes, such as some children being made to wait longer than others. There was no mention the children had been instructed to wait 15 minutes, or any particular length of time.
Why we repeat what is false
This is a simple mistake many of us make each day, we are prepared to repeat something if it suits our beliefs.
I know I do this all the time, this post was going to talk about the “eat the cookie” experiment to talk about my own views about avoiding always going for quick wins, but it was only when I delved more into the research I couldn’t just regurgitate this, when I had nothing to support my views.
As a bit of fact checking:
The original 1970 experiment didn’t measure how successful these children were, because this was the first measurement of 3 to 5 year olds.
A later 1989 study I found provided more insight to say to the delayed gratification children had more success. But that was through things like SAT scores – not an indicator of life long success.
I’m doubtful that just because a 3 to 5 year is obedient, doesn’t mean they won’t grow up to desire instant reward such as cake or credit card spending, nor should we condemn that someone will be a failure because of an experiment performed when they were a toddler!
Another note is somewhere along the way, the treat of choice became the marshmallow.
It’s also worth noting that this experiment because of it’s popularity has been performed in various conditions, including for television, and more recent – on YouTube:
This additional broadening of the research has noted other factors – such as socio-economic status can have an impact, making the success/not a success factor a bit cloudy.
One final note – through my research I’ve not seen it called the “eat the cookie” test, unless Joe misremembered and got his sugary snacks mixed up?
The media and reporting on research
Something that always get my fact detectors ringing is when the media start a piece with “Latest research says…”
Because I know what I’m going to read is going to be a dumbed down version of the truth.
Why do they do this?
Well first academic journal articles are written in a complex, convoluted format with many specialist terms and acronyms that most people won’t be able to read. I’ll admit when writing this post I nearly gave up because I found some of this confusing!
A job of any good writer is being able to translated this so a mass audience understands.
As a result you can lose out on key details of the research such as the sample size and what the methodology actually involves.
The second reason is a bit more underhand writers have to go with what sells, and ensure it fits the agenda of those who pay them.
Many years ago I remember reading on what seemed to be a flip flopping of “research says…” facts that coffee is good or bad for you depending on the month.
“Oh I drink lots of coffee.. why shouldn’t I?”
“Oh I don’t drink enough coffee, with these health benefits I should drink more!”
Health scares, things that prolong your life, things that support your agenda, or quick life hacks that will make your life better are all popular things to mis report.
Case in point: The Seven Minute workout
Many years ago I wrote a post about the seven minute workout, which was a response stirred by mass health and fitness blog coverage which reported according to research… to be fit and healthy you just needed to do a routine of exercises for seven minutes a day.
This didn’t seem right and I was ready to condemn the idiot researchers for saying this, but before I hit publish I went and read the original research it said for best result you needed to do it as high-intensity circuit training, in sets, which was far from the suggestion that you could just do the seven minutes!
As a blog writer it’s easy to make the mistake of being too reactive. If any content claims on research says… take a step back, locate a link to the referenced research and do your own homework before commenting.
Discussion: What this all means
I don’t blame the book I read for giving a cliff note version of this study, as it was only using the experiment as a story to make a point about instant gratification, and the rewards to being patient and putting in the work – falling to the authors confirmation bias.
This demonstrates the need for care when expressing your beliefs – if the research you reference isn’t quite right, or it has been sensationalised it can undermine your argument.
I suspect with the “cookie/marshmallow/pretezel test” undergoing so much mainstream attention, and lots of further studies, it’s just resulted in a hybrid narrative, used to suit anyone wanting to use it as evidence against instant gratification, that it has become fact through repetition.
From my own perspective as a writer, I am frustrated, because I too wanted to use the study to conclude that it pays off not to do everything the easy way, but against the facts I can’t knowingly report something I don’t fully comprehend.
Yes I may only write a blog, rather doing work that demonstrates serious academic rigor, but it all plays a part in spreading innaccurate information just because it confirms my beliefs.
Although I can’t say the link between whether eating a cookie as a child is a predictor for life long success, what I did learn was some tips on how to delay gratification:
Those who struggled to get the additional rewarded, where those kept their eyes on the sugary treat! If it was covered up, they would lift the cover up for the good feelings it gave them and fall to their temptations!
The successful ones had two methods:
- Self-distraction – they would find something to take their mind off the snack, such as by singing a song.
- Self-awareness – they would talk to themselves about the consequences giving into their desires. They talked through with themselves that by indulging they would fail the task and not get the additional reward.
And if you want to be a success eat the cookie, or don’t, I can’t say with any confidence what either will do to how successful your life is!
Wishing you the best in your success
James @Perfect Manifesto
Copyright © 2023 James M.Lane perfectmanifesto.com
Copyright © 2022 James M.Lane perfectmanifesto.com
2 thoughts on “Eat The Cookie, Or Don’t – A Post About Conformation Bias”
This is very interesting. I know I try to learn more about something and not write reactively, but I probably have done so. Unfortunately.
One thing these “studies” of kids don’t seem to mention is if kids are hungry, or if they just ate! Also, do any of the kids struggle with chronic food insecurity, or come from a large family, where grabbing food at hand is an important part of their survival? If the authors of these studies never struggled with food insecurity, it may never have occurred to them to find out if this was why Junior grabbed and ate the cookie/marshmallow!
I think it’s likely to happen to anyone who has a regular schedule to keep to and sometimes the idea overtakes the fact checking.
That’s also something to consider, I believe there was further research looking at different socio-economic backgrounds- I don’t know if food scarcity came up?
Reading the other studies I’m not sure whether a 3-5 ability to delay gratification is a predictor of success – I’d have to see regular studies performed on the original children until retirement age.