Do your kids sometimes exhibit completely unexpected and irrational behavior?
Heck, do you sometimes do the same?
Psychologists have been studying human behavior and our minds for eons and some of the things they’ve discovered are fascinating.
I love reading about these studies that explain some of our crazy, cooky behavior! And while not all of the studies that I’ve come across are related to parenting, I find that their insights can nevertheless be applied to our day-to-day parenting choices to make us much better parents!
So today, I decided to consolidates some of these studies in one place. I hope you find them as fascinating as I do.
[Note: Want to see more articles based on psychology / neuroscience research? Please leave a comment below to let me know and we will start featuring them more often!]
Alright here we go –
#1 Marshmallow Experiment
Let’s start with the most popular of these studies – the marshmallow experiment. This is something most parents have heard of. I want to start with this because (a) the insights from this experiment are quite far reaching and (b) a while ago one of the readers here brought to my attention a followup study which I think is very important, for us parents in particular.
Alright, so back in 1960’s Stanford professor Walter Mischel and his team conducted a series of experiments where they would bring a child (usually 4 – 5 years old) into a room, put a marshmallow (or a cookie) in front of them and offer them a deal: eat the marshmallow immediately or hold off for 15 minutes and receive a 2nd marshmallow as a reward for waiting. And the researcher would leave the room.
Follow-up studies (here, here, here, here and here) showed that kids who were willing to wait, i.e., delay gratification, were more successful academically, have better social skills, better ability to deal with frustration and stress, lower addiction rates and even better BMI 30 years down the line!
Insights for Parents:
Being able to wait for a better reward/option down the line instead of jumping on instant gratification is an important life skill for kids. And we parents are in a unique position to teach this to our kids in so many ways through our day-to-day interaction with them!
For instance, instead of jumping up immediately to offer them something they ask for, ask them to wait until you finish up whatever you are in the middle of and then reward them at the end for waiting (the reward can simply be doing what they asked for, or even an explicit acknowledgment along the lines of “Thank you for waiting”).
When you are at the grocery store, if your child asks for a chocolate, instead of buying it for them immediately, try to negotiate a deal where you buy them a box if they can wait until their birthday, Christmas or even the weekend.
Slowly, but surely, their ability to wait for a better reward will improve.
During an earlier discussion of the Marshmallow experiment, one of our readers pointed me to this study in which the researchers split the kids into two groups before the experiment. One group was exposed to an unreliable researcher who made promises but failed to keep them. The second group was exposed to a reliable researcher who made and kept promises. And then the marshmallow experiment was started.
The results showed that children in the reliable researcher group waited on average four times longer than the children in the unreliable researcher group. Additionally, the children in the reliable researcher group were nine times as likely to wait the whole 15 minutes as the children in the unreliable researcher group.
Insights for Parents:
Watch out for those promises! It may seem like an easy way out to promise a child this or that just to get the task done, nod your head in agreement while you are distracted without really paying attention to what you are agreeing to…
But every time you break a promise, you appear unreliable in your child’s perception. Consequently, they are less likely to delay gratification in your presence, making them more likely to choose instant gratification — and that could easily translate to more tantrums, arguments and fighting.
So, beware and don’t make promises if you can’t keep them… the trade off is simply not worth it!
#2 “What the Hell” Effect
Ever been in a situation where your child does something wrong, you get upset, you yell and instead of fixing things, your child goes on to make a bad situation worse?
In this case, a phenomenon that psychologists call “what the hell” effect may be in play. The idea is that once you slip off a resolution, you brain kicks into a “What the hell, I’ve already failed…. I may as well go all out” mode.
The term was first coined by dieting researcher Dr. Janet Polivy to explain the phenomenon where dieters who were led to believe that they had already broken their diets were more likely to binge eat.
In one of her studies a group of participants were all given pizza slices of the same size. However, some of them were made to think that they had received a bigger slice compared to others. Next the participants were asked to taste and rate chocolate cookies. Dieters who believed that they had busted their diets tended to eat over 50% more cookies in the fake taste test than the others.
Insights for Parents:
Kids inherently crave for parents approval. But being kids (and humans!) they will slip up. When we get upset over this, the guilt and shame that arises could push them into the “what the hell” mode.
By recognizing that the “what the hell effect” might be in play we can help them snap out of these situations. One of the things that have been working for us is to explicitly acknowledge the effort to take the focus away from failure.
For instance, recently when I said “no” for something, my daughter defiantly back answered and before I could catch myself, I had snapped at her. It didn’t take long for the situation to quickly get out of hand. At one point though, I did get a bit of a handle on the situation and said as calmly as I could “I know you are still learning to handle disappointment and someday we’ll be able to deal with things calmly. For now, we need to calm down and stop yelling at each other.” And I zipped my lips. She stomped a little and said I was being mean but soon the “no” was accepted without further escalation.
Sometimes, simply realizing what is happening and refusing to continue being a part of it can help diffuse a quickly escalating situation!
#3 Cognitive Overload
Baba Shiv, currently a professor of marketing at Stanford, talks about a study, which I think is interesting for all of us raising kids in the Information Age.
A group of 165 undergraduate students were led to believe that they were part of a study about their capacity to memorize information. One half of them were given a 2-digit number to remember and the others were asked to memorize a 7-digit number. They were told that the experiment was for them to remember it as they walked from one room, through a hallway, to another room. And as a thank you for participating in the experiment, they were offered a choice of snack — either chocolate cake or fruit — in the hallway on their way to the second room.
The students in the 7-digit number group were much more likely to chose the chocolate cake than the students in the 2-digit number group who favored the healthier snack option.
Professor Shiv hypothesizes that the students keeping track of the 7-digit number were cognitively loaded. When presented with the snack options, they saw the chocolate cake as one of higher value and chose it. With their brain engaged elsewhere, they did not expend the energy to reason that the fruit may be a healthier option.
Insights for Parents:
This study has 2-way implications for us parents. We are raising our kids in a highly distracted world. If our kids have a lot on their minds, they may be tempted to make poor choices — in school, at home, online and out there in the world. And we parents ourselves could be so cognitively overloaded that we may make poor choices as well — from our parenting choices and life choices.
It is important from a very early age that we start to teach kids how to keep their lives from getting overwhelming. And we do so for ourselves as well.
Don’t over schedule kids or your own time. Make sure there is enough downtime for all. Get into the healthy organization habits. Figure out a working system to periodically dump things out of the brain and onto a paper on an app (check out this simplified GTD system if you don’t have one yet). Practice mindfulness. Figure out ways to reduce stress.
#4 Pygmalion Effect and Golem Effect
We’ve all heard of self-fulfilling prophesies, but reading studies which evaluate the impact on children in a systematic way is nothing short of mind boggling.
In 1965, Professor Rosenthal and Jacobson told the teachers in a public elementary school that they were evaluating a “special Harvard test” that could predict which kids would academically bloom, or spurt, that year. Children in 18 classrooms were given a standard IQ test at the beginning of the school year. 20% of the students in each class were randomly chosen to be “spurters” or “bloomers”. The list of these students was given to the teachers, but the children themselves were kept in the dark. At the end of the school year, the same standard IQ test was readministered.
The result was that kids who were labeled as “spurters” (even though chosen randomly!) had an average increase in IQ of 12.2 points compared to 8 point increase for the rest of the students. The gain was more staggering in the lower grades – the labelled students in first and second grades saw an increase in IQ of 20 points!
This effect where higher expectations lead to improved performance is termed the Pygmalion effect and the opposite, where lower expectations result in decreased performance is termed the Golem effect.
Insights for Parents:
Note that in the study mentioned above the kids had no idea who was a “spurter” and who was not… it is only the teachers perception of the child that indirectly placed a higher expectation and provided higher support to the child that were responsible for the results observed.
Now imagine your child at 2 who wants to “eat by myself” and end up with as more spaghetti on themselves and the floor than in their stomach. If you see them as “messy” or “inconveniently causing you extra work” the way you treat them is going to be entirely different than if you were to think of them as “independent”, “self-sufficient” or “initiative taker”.
Similarly at 8, when they question everything you say and push every limit possible, if you think of them as “defiant”, “too much attitude” or “spoilt” how you deal with them is different than if you think of them as “a strong person who knows their mind”, “someone with a backbone” or “spirited”.
What we think, and say, about our kids matter, much more than it seems at first glance.
#5 Opt-in Vs. Opt-out
Austria and Germany are neighboring countries with a lot of cultural similarities, right? And yet, in Austria, 99.98% of the people are signed up for organ donation, whereas in Germany it is just 12%.
It’s the same thing with Belgium and Netherlands… again they are neighbors and culturally quite similar. Yet 98% of the Belgians are signed up for organ donation, whereas only 27.5% of the Dutch are. It’s the same story with Sweden and Denmark with 85.9% and 4.25% people agreeing for organ donations respectively. [source]
You know what is causing the huge disparities?
A simple check box!
In the countries with low organ donation rates, the DMV forms have an opt-in form where people are asked to explicitly check a box if they want to participate in organ donation. And in countries with high organ donation rates? Yes, you guessed it. The DMV forms are opt-out options, where people are automatically signed in and they have to to explicitly check a box if they do not want to participate in organ donation.
It’s not that people in some countries are more noble than others. It is just that the decision is so emotionally difficult, that they just default to the preset option.
Insights for Parents:
Can you imagine what a great benefit this quirk of the human mind can be for us parents? Combine it with cognitive overload, and we have a simple hack to gain some easy wins!
Want kids to eat healthier? Set a fruit next their dinner plates instead of asking them if they want one. Unless they detest the fruit being offered, chances are they will eat it without giving it a second thought.
Want kids to wear helmet while they ride a bike? Make the handle bar of their bike the default storage spot for the helmet. While they might not be inclined to go looking for it in the closet, if it is right there when they get their bikes out, they are more likely to use it.
So the simple rule of thumb… if them want them to do something, set things up so doing is the default option and they have to explicitly opt out if they don’t want to do it. And vice versa.
#6 Use Magic Words
In the 70’s, Harvard Psychology Professor Ellen Langer conducted a study about the semantics of our requests and it’s impact on compliance to the request.
People waiting in line to use a busy copy machine on a college campus were interrupted with one of these variants of this request to cut the line to make copies in a rush:
“Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine?”
“Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”
“Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?
60% of the people let the interrupting person jump the line in case of the first question, but for the 2nd and 3rd question, 93% and 94% of the people agreed respectively.
Notice that the “reason” offered in the second case — because I have to make copies — is not really a reason at all. And yet, the compliance rate was as high as when the person offered a real reason.
Next, the number of pages that the person requested to copy was changed from 5 to 20. In this case where the interruption would be substantially longer, the reason mattered. Compliance for the 3 cases was 24%, 24% and 42% respectively.
The authors hypothesize that (a) providing a reason for a request significantly improves compliance to the request and (b) if the request did not require much effort, then the actual reason was not even relevant — just using the word “because” was enough to get more compliance.
Insights for Parents:
Want to get your kids to do what you tell them? Give them a reason.
For instance, if you want them to wear their coat before heading out, instead of ordering “Wear your coat”, try saying “Wear your coat sweetie, because it is cold outside” — it will likely improve compliance. Even better, try, “Wear your coat sweeties because it is cold outside and I don’t want my little pumpkin to get the sniffles” — everyone can be swayed with a little bit of sweet talk and you’ll feel good too 🙂
#7 Money Can Buy Happiness
Contrary to the popular cliche, money can buy you happiness if you know where and how to spend it. Studies (here and here) conducted by Leaf Van Boven, professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado show that the key is to spend your money on experiences rather than stuff.
Boven hypothesizes that the reason experiences are a better investment than stuff is
- Perception of experiences improve with time
- Experiences don’t lend themselves to easy comparative evaluation
- Experiences tend to be more social than buying stuff, and since humans are social beings, this brings us more happiness
- Experiences are less likely to be marred by hedonic adaptation
Insights for Parents:
Tempting as it may be to buy for your kids everything you never had as a child… hold back. Use that money to buy experiences instead.
Make a rule to have one or two family vacations each year… not only is this a great way to “buy” happiness, you also get a chance to de-stress from everyday issues, connect more deeply with your family and build memories that last a lifetime.
With our daughter, each year we offer her a vacation or an outing with a handful of friends instead of a big birthday party and after some wavering she almost always chooses the vacation/outing. And the memories we’ve made from these trips and outings have been priceless. Definitely beats yet another party at Pump-it-up and goody bags that clutter up every ones homes!
#8 Curse of Knowledge
In 1990, Stanford graduate student Elizabeth Newton conducted an experiment which involved one person acting as a “tapper” and another acting as the “listener”. The objective of the experiment was to see how often the “listener” could guess the song that the “tapper” was tapping out on the table. The songs being tapped were usually simple and well known like “Happy Birthday”.
When the tappers were asked to predict how often they think the listener would be able to guess the song, on average they predicted that it should be 50%. Well, guess what? The listeners failed miserably and were actually able to guess the songs only 2.5% of the time.
This is a classic demonstration of the Curse of Knowledge. Do try this at home… it makes for a fascinating and fun game.
Here’s what happens… when we are tapping out the tune with our fingers, the tune plays out in your mind and so the tapping makes complete sense to us. However, without the benefit of the tune playing in their mind, all the listener hears are disparate taps that make no sense.
Insights for Parents:
The biggest problem with the “curse of knowledge” is that once we have some knowledge it is very hard to go back to that state where you did not have that knowledge. This makes it very hard to communicate with those who have none of the knowledge or only a part of it.
But this is a position we parents find ourselves in all the time!
It’s late in the morning and your kids are dawdling. You shout at them that you are getting late and ask them to hurry up. You plead with them that you don’t want to be late for the meeting (again!) and yet they still move at the pace of a drunk slug. What gives?
Instead of being frustrated, remember that this is a simple case of the curse of knowledge. “Being late” means something to you… you have accumulated knowledge from a life time of personal and watched experiences to know that the consequence of “being late” are almost never good. And yet, for a 3, 4 or 5 year old, “being late” is a benign concept. Even with older kids, they may have a better idea of what “being late” entails, but not really the same range of built up experience as us.
And this is just one example…
So, next time when you start getting frustrated with your kids for not quite getting what you are trying to explain, or if they seem like they don’t care, take a step back. Breathe deeply and look for other ways to help them connect the dots.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Take a quick step back and look at your life right now.
- Are you giving your kids enough opportunities to experience delayed gratification?
- How often does “what the hell” effect result in monster tantrums and power struggles in your household?
- Are you putting in place mechanisms to counteract cognitive overload?
- Are you aware of the ways you perceive your kids and the effect it has on them? Do you hold them up to high enough expectations and provide them the support to meet them?
- What are some of the interactions that could be improved by switching out the defaults from opt-in to opt-out or vice versa?
- When you make requests of your kids, how often do you give them the reasons for those requests?
- Think of the past 5 purchases you made for your kids that weren’t for the basic needs. How many of these were for materialistic goods and how many were experiential in nature?
- How often do you get frustrated due to the curse of knowledge?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Over the next week, pick any one or two of these that resonate the most with you and start applying the insights and hacks to your life. It could be something simple as tacking on a “because” to the end of each request or making sure that everyone takes a quick breather between school and afters chool activities to reduce cognitive overload…. every little bit helps!