Sonn: The psychology of Sesame Street


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The American children’s television series “Sesame Street” just opened its 44th season last week, and it has a new and improved version of the Cookie Monster. This season, instead of immediately eating cookies when he has a craving, he will instead fight his desires and use the power of self-restraint to control his addiction. The goal, naturally, is to get kids to emulate Cookie Monster 2.0 and use self-restraint in their own lives. Self-restraint is supposedly beneficial, with supporting evidence (and the Cookie Monster’s newfound attitude) being attributed to Stanford University’s Marshmallow Test that took place almost 50 years ago.

In that study, kids were given two options: one marshmallow now or two marshmallows 15 minutes later. The ones who chose the latter showed more success later on in life, from better grades to healthier Body Mass Indexes. The question Sesame Street is endeavoring to answer is clear: Can you teach children the concept of self-restraint? Personally, I’m skeptical. Have you ever seen a kid say, “You know what, I can wait for that cereal until the next time we come to the store”? I think not.

According to more modern research, you can’t teach restraint, at least not with cookies and marshmallows. A 2012 University of Rochester study re-examined the Stanford results, did its own studies, and revealed the Stanford tests may have been flawed. The Rochester tests showed that kids who chose to receive two marshmallows later probably weren’t displaying restraint but strategic reasoning, meaning they wait if they believe it’s the rational choice. The Rochester kids were divided into two test groups: the unreliable and the reliable. In the first of two tests, the children in the unreliable group were given crayons and were promised better crayons if they waited, but the promise was broken (and the promise was kept for the reliable). Then the marshmallows came out, and the Rochester researchers found that the children in the unreliable group tended to eat the one marshmallow while the ones in the reliable group tended to wait for two. The kids in the unreliable group saw the risk in waiting and adjusted accordingly.

The kids at Rochester — and likely the kids and Stanford, too — were thinking strategically in an attempt to maximize their marshmallow consumption. So maybe the capacity to think strategically, not restraint, is why the two-marshmallow kids from the Stanford test were more successful later on in life. It can’t be an accident that corporate self-help gurus continually tout the benefits of strategic thinking, can it? Again, I think not.

This all means that “Sesame Street” and the Cookie Monster might teach the wrong lesson. Self-restraint is important, but if the goal of “Sesame Street” goal is to churn out a generation of super babies, it should forgo Cookie Monster’s lesson on restraint and introduce the Count to game theory. Yes, “Sesame Street” might inadvertently be making a noob move here with the new Cookie Monster, but older individuals such as you and I can learn from its mistake and apply our newfound knowledge — that strategic thinkers outperform their non-strategic counterparts — to our advantage.

By improving our ability to game out scenarios and identify competitive advantages, we can maximize our returns in life and maybe our marshmallow intake, without having to give up our cookies.

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