As I See It: Chasing The Impulse
October 15, 2012 Victor Rozek
What if there was a simple experiment that could predict the trajectory of a 4-year-old’s life. Seems improbable. After all, toddlers are no more fully formed than Greek economic policy. But such an instrument exists and it involves marshmallows.
The experiment was the brainchild of psychologist Walter Mischel and it dates back to the 1960s when experimentation of any sort usually involved drugs. It was conducted at a preschool on the Stanford University campus with the children of faculty members and graduate students, which suggests that the little dauphins were strangers to privation. The test was simplicity itself, and the drug of choice was sugar. The kids were told they could have two yummy, yummy marshmallows if they were able to wait until their teacher returned from running an errand. Alternately, they could choose to have only one marshmallow but they could eat it right away. No waiting. So each 4-year-old had a single marshmallow placed on his/her desk, and the teacher left saying she would return in 20 minutes.
There they sat, as antsy as greyhounds anxious to chase a mechanical rabbit. Some decided that the only sure way to get rid of temptation was to yield to it, and snarfed their treat almost as soon as the teacher left the room. Others swallowed nothing more than their discomfort. The latter group did their best to distract themselves from the siren call of corn syrup. Some even closed their eyes to avoid direct contact with temptation.
Not much was immediately evident from the impulse control proclivities of preschoolers, but 10 years later, distinct patterns emerged. Those who were able to defer gratification were better able to cope with the frustrations of life. They were more self reliant, more confident, more trustworthy, and more dependable than their counterparts. The kids that were unable to wait were easily frustrated, immobilized by stress, socially isolated, stubborn, indecisive, and sharp tempered. And, they still had not learned to dampen their desire for indulgence.
But the game-changing differences became evident four years later when they graduated from high school. The patient group was the more accomplished. They were better students, able to concentrate and follow through. Plus, they could actually use and respond to reason, which sets them well ahead of Congress. And here’s the real shocker: on average, they had a 210 point advantage on their SAT scores.
Daniel Goleman recounts this experiment in his groundbreaking book Emotional Intelligence, shortened EI. When it was first published in the mid-1990s, the book launched a cottage industry of self-help gurus yearning to be rich by raising the corporate EQ (emotional quotient). There was testing-a-plenty and evaluation, and employees not only rated themselves, but found out what their managers and peers thought about their emotional development. (Most folks probably had sufficient IQs not to show any emotional reaction to the feedback, at least not while anyone was looking.) Still, it was an opportunity to get acquainted with the reactive part of the brain–the limbic system or lizard brain, as it is informally called, because it has all the rationality and compassion of an iguana. But, as technology increasingly allowed us to isolate, and human interactions moved online, the whole subject became as relevant as last week’s newspaper.
But lack of impulse control has become the ball and chain tied to the leg of productivity. Our collective addiction to the Internet, and its relentless and innumerable distractions, has reduced attention spans to the time it takes to boil an egg. Productivity has become fragmented under the guise of multitasking.
Ten minutes after a meeting or presentation begins, half the room ignores the speaker and starts tweeting, playing with their smartphones, or staring at their laptops. Conversations are truncated when the listener digs his phone out of his pocket and begins scrolling, while the speaker’s thoughts no doubt turn to homicide. Where technology is concerned, it is as if the indulgent 4-year-old has taken dominion over the adult.
One aspect of emotional intelligence is self management, and impulse control, it turns out, is the key. The need for improved self management is gaining urgency as the most popular aspects of computer technology (social media and smartphone apps, to name just two) are designed to be impulse friendly. But it is the combination of impulse and anonymity that have proven to be the enablers of the lizard brain.
The level of online addiction (porn), savagery (bullying), and rudeness (political discourse) is well documented. Civility is an infrequent visitor to the blogosphere. Our better angels are leaving the building. Private passions have emerged from the shadows and the anonymity of the Internet left them unopposed.
Beyond improving productivity and bolstering civility, impulse control provides a wider range of choices for mood management. Excessive indulgence in food, alcohol, drugs, television viewing, and Internet usage are reactive strategies for self medication. When they bypass the moderating capacities of the rational brain, they become compulsions. The 4-year-old in us is left alone with his marshmallows, his beer, his mouse and the remote, without the discipline to postpone indulgence. In the workplace, this unremitting need for gratification manifests as distraction.
Happily, while IQ is static and cannot be substantially changed, EQ is fluid. Emotional intelligence is learned and can be improved with practice. And, there are substantial financial inducements to make the effort worthwhile. Doing the right thing is somehow easier when the way is greased with cash.
Goleman sites the results of a study conducted by a company called TalentSmart. Researchers calibrated the EQ of nearly 1 million people and compared their earnings. They found that high EQ individuals made $29,000 more than their low EQ colleagues. And for every point an employee added to his EQ, his salary rose by $1,300 annually. Additionally, they discovered that emotional intelligence accounts for 58 percent of performance in all types of jobs, and that over 90 percent of top performers have high EQ. Which explains why people with IQs of 150 but low emotional intelligence frequently end up working for people with IQs of 120 who have high emotional intelligence.
At its most basic, EI is the capacity to recognize our own feelings (and triggers), and those of others. There are four aspects to it: Self Awareness, Self Management, Social Awareness, and Relationship Management. Elevating emotional intelligence and mastering impulse control is a process of rewiring the neural pathways between the lizard brain and the rational brain. If that sounds daunting, opt for ignorance. As Margaret Atwood wrote in her chilling book The Handmaid’s Tale, “Knowing was temptation. What you don’t know won’t tempt you.”
But if you’ve already munched from the tree of knowledge and liked it, then you may as well follow the lead of a woman who knew more than a little about chasing her impulses. “Between two evils,” she said “I always pick the one I never tried before.” Mae West would have loved the Internet.