Welcome to the Existential Roundup, where we bring you links to some articles currently trending that may be of interest to those in the existential-humanistic psychology community.
Lately, while dealing with a period of high stress, I have found cookies—specifically those with Dulce de Leche chips—a huge source of comfort. Thus, Cookie Monster’s picture on the Pacific Standard’s website caught my eye. As I started to peruse the article, I discovered first that Sesame Street is celebrating the beginning of its 44th season on television. What a wonderful miraculous run for such an amazing television show!
But it turns out, like many things in middle age, elements in the show have been “repurposed,” including my beloved Cookie Monster. He is no longer just stuffing cookies into his Muppet mouth! Rather, the article describes him as a “full-time, walking, talking, googly-eyed vehicle for a set of intensely fashionable ideas about psychology and success. The blue Muppet was now, as an official Sesame Street website put it, a “poster child for someone needing to master self-regulation skills” (¶ 2)
Yes, it’s true. Cookie Monster, now in his 40’s, has become a spokesperson for the idea of self-control and self-regulation, in the news lately with the publication of Walter Mischel’s The Marshmallow Test, a popularization of his years of research into this very issue. According to the Pacific Standard article, Mischel consulted on the episodes and his influence is evident. The article describes one particular segment as follows:
Cookie Monster appears as a contestant on a game show and is presented with a single cookie on a plate. “This is The Waiting Game,” shouts the lantern-jawed Muppet host, “and if you wait to eat the cookie until I get back, you get two cookies.” As the host dashes away, Cookie Monster’s ordeal begins. He tries singing to himself. Then he pretends the cookie is only a picture. Next he distracts himself by playing with a toy, and finally imagines that the cookie is a smelly fish. “Me need new strategy,” he says as one mental trick gives out to another. A pair of back-up singers pops up every few seconds to croon that “good things come to those who wait.” Finally, the host returns with the second cookie. The exhausted monster’s patience has paid off. (¶ 4)
For those who do not remember Mischel’s experiment, fhe offered young children the choice of one marshmallow now, or two marshmallows if they can wait until later, when the researcher returned to the room. This led Mischel to develop what he termed a “hot and cool” system, where hot refers to the system that is impulsive and emotional, while the cool is rational and can delay gratification. This cool system is what Cookie Monster uses to come up with strategy after strategy to keep from eating the marshmallow.
In an interview with The Atlantic, Mischel explained that there is more to this iconic experiment than just self-control. He said that in the initial experiments in the 1960s, the marshmallows and other treats were “puny” things, so for the children it wasn’t just about self-control but about achievement—something the children could then say to their parents, “Look what I did!” Furthermore, Mischel said the experiments examined trust, as the children had to decide whether to trust that the researcher would return—the condition allowing them to eat the two marshmallows rather than one.
Mischel also explains that the marshmallow experiments have been misunderstood and mis-explained over the years and thus he felt the need to write his own book in order to set the record straight about what he was doing and what the results actually show. Most important, though, according to Mischel, is that when a child does not delay gratification, that we asks why—that we try to understand that child’s individual experience in that moment rather than lump the child into some broad category. In that way, we may learn why the child chooses not to exercise self-control and from there, perhaps learn ways that might help motivate the child to try self-control. Or maybe, Mischel opines, the child is perfectly comfortable and accepting of his or her lack of self-control. That may be too big a job for Cookie Monster!