If at first you don’t succeed, cheat. In Walter Mischel’s classic studies of young children’s self-control, he found that the kids able to resist cookies and marshmallows for longer periods tended to adopt distraction strategies, such as covering their eyes or singing to themselves. Even our chimpanzee cousins are adept at this, although admittedly in their case it’s for greater gain rather than to avoid sin. In a 2007 study Michael Beran at Georgia State University showed that chimps played with toys as a way to distract themselves from a self-filling jar of sweets. The longer they waited before grabbing the jar, the more sweets they’d get. If the jar was out of reach, they didn’t play with the toys so much, which suggests they really were using the toys as a form of distraction.
This post is part of the Research Digest’s Sin Week. Each day for Seven days we’ll be posting a confession, a new sin and a way to be good. The festivities coincide with the publication of a feature-length article on the psychology behind the Seven Deadly Sins in this month’s Psychologist magazine.