Every time you see news about a study claiming that “kids who [fill in blank with behavior X] are likely to develop [fill in blank with psychological malady Y] later in life”–or some variation on that theme–the link between X and Y often seems inexplicable. It’s as if by some cruel stroke of fate, children who do ostensibly innocent things are dooming themselves to disorders they can’t even spell yet.
News in this category comes out all the time, and I’m about to contend that the answer is almost always the same.
Here’s an example: A study just came out of Cardiff University in the UK indicating that children who eat candy every day are more likely to become violent adults. Researchers looked at cumulative data on 17,500 people and found that 69% of the participants who were violent at the age of 34 had eaten candy and chocolate nearly every day during childhood (around age 10), compared to 42% who were non-violent.
The link between candy and violence remained constant even after controlling for other factors such as parenting, geography, lack of education after the age of 16 and (oddly) whether they had access to a car when they were 34.
Now, first of all, this is a cohort study that uses droves of health and lifestyle data on large groups of people and attempts to identify linkages. I’m not saying that the methodology alone calls the findings into question, but fishing for correlations in oceans of data has its perils. You’re liable to find several bizarre connections and not all are worth talking about.
Having said that, let’s assume that this finding is accurate. What’s the explanation? Researchers at Cardiff suspect that certain additives in candy may contribute towards aggression. I think it’s fairly easy to rule that out, because the sheer number and variety of additives in candy makes correlation impossible. Do Skittles make kids more violent than Snickers? Is Red #5 a worse contributor to barbarism than Yellow #8? This can get really silly.
We’re also faced with not knowing if eating more of a particular type of confection makes a child become more aggressive than another. If Bobby eats three Hershey’s Kisses every day, will he become more violent than Sandy who eats four Swedish Fish and a Cadbury bar? Again, silly.
Non-chemical explanations are of two varieties, and they’re essentially flip sides of the same coin. Either the kids who ate more candy did so because they didn’t delay (defer) gratification, or because they were difficult personalities to begin with and their parents gave them more candy to appease them. These are not mutually exclusive categories, and I strongly suspect that the answer lies somewhere in the overlap.
And it stands to reason, as a long list of research indicates, that failure to delay gratification combined with parental indulgence are the culprits. The Stanford Marshmallow Test in the 1960s kicked off this line of study. Psychologist Walter Mischel gave each child in a group of 4-year olds a marshmallow and told them that if they didn’t eat it and wait for him to return after 20 minutes, he would give them another as a reward for being patient. Some children ate the marshmallow right away and some of them were able to resist the temptation.
Fourteen years later, Mischel followed up on the children. Those who couldn’t wait suffered low self-esteem and were generally regarded by their teachers and parents as “stubborn, prone to envy and easily frustrated.” Meanwhile, those who did not eat their marshmallows were self-motivated, educationally successful and emotionally intelligent.
There’s some debate about the exact details of the marshmallow study, but the general result has been born out by other studies over the years (as documented in this excellent New Yorker piece by science writer Jonah Lehrer). Further studies have also gone on to link delayed gratification to varying levels of intelligence.
I’d argue that nearly all of these results, similar to candy correlating with violence, link back to delayed gratification. Why they do is the real question, and I’m not sure anyone has sufficiently answered it yet. Perhaps failing to delay gratification impairs learning, or triggers indulgent habits that grow harder to change with time, or short-circuits impulse control networks in the brain. Maybe all of the above, and likely more. Whatever the case, it seems clear that the problems start early in life, and left unchecked the path of least resistance leads to a difficult adulthood.