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So is the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man correlated to a crimefighter?
June 2, 2011 9:33 AM   Subscribe

Can marshmallows be the link that helps explain falling crime rates and increased environmental cleanliness? It seems that falling environmental lead levels may lead kids to have have more activity in their brains' frontal cortices. After following the kids from the marshmallow experiment for over 40 years, Walter Mischel found that those that could resist immediately eating the marshmallow were more likely to have increased activity in that area of their brains. These kids were also more likely to later exhibit such things as increased SAT scores and fewer anger management issues.

The same ability to distract or control their desires that enabled them to resist eating the marshmallow can also help them prevent their anger from bursting out into violence. Could environmental conservation be leading to correlated to not only a cleaner, but indirectly safer world?

Analysis at BoingBoing from a longer Wired article.
posted by BevosAngryGhost (63 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
Previously: 1 2.
posted by bread-eater at 9:46 AM on June 2, 2011


It seems that falling environmental lead levels may lead kids...

Isn't it the other way around?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:49 AM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


How much lead was there in the environment in pre-industrial times? I know it was used for roofs and city plubming and stuff, but peasant farm children presumably wouldn't have much exposure. How were crime levels there?
posted by DU at 9:51 AM on June 2, 2011


Well, wouldn't there have been lead in any bronze or tin tools/utensils?
posted by spicynuts at 9:56 AM on June 2, 2011


China took the lead of its gasoline nine years ago, and lead levels in Chinese children's blood have been dropping. But many factory towns are poisoning their people with lead, hydroxybenzene, and all kinds of nasty chemicals.
posted by kozad at 10:02 AM on June 2, 2011


Sounds like a case for instrumental variable regression. But, damn, what's the instrument?
posted by redbeard at 10:02 AM on June 2, 2011


I was a bit shocked when reading through a pre-war home renovation book . . it had a recipe for making your own lead paint, which was made of 50% lead. Basically, using lead paint would give you lead clad walls. I had no idea that lead paint was that bad, having always assumed it was a minor component of the paint. A little research later, and I found out that indeed most lead paints ranged from 10 to 50% lead.
posted by fimbulvetr at 10:05 AM on June 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


Lead makes great paint. It's terrible for anyone who comes in contact with it, but if you want something with great opacity and smooth coverage and excellent lasting power, lead paint is fantastic.

An episode of Doc Martin had an art forger whose brother thought he was a drug abuser but really he was making his own lead paint to use on his forgeries. Toxic horrible stuff, but only as a side effect to what are otherwise excellent qualities for paint.
posted by hippybear at 10:09 AM on June 2, 2011


The demonization of lead and lead paint was a covert op ran by the NSA who were having difficultly controlling the minds of the population with HAARP due to the RF stopping properties of the lead in paint.
posted by zeoslap at 10:11 AM on June 2, 2011 [10 favorites]


That suggests to me that, if one were to repeat the marshmallow test with modern, lead-free kids, more than the original 20 percent of them should pass. Does anyone know if this has been tried?
posted by Naberius at 10:14 AM on June 2, 2011


That's pretty good, zeoslap, but it doesn't account for the demonization of lead in gasoline.
posted by notyou at 10:14 AM on June 2, 2011


it doesn't account for the demonization of lead in gasoline.

The corn lobby is the only force in America more powerful than the NSA.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 10:24 AM on June 2, 2011


it doesn't account for the demonization of lead in gasoline.

Leaded gasoline is better for your engine, and unleaded gasoline is an effort by the auto industry to make engines crap out and need replacement sooner.
posted by swift at 10:25 AM on June 2, 2011


Obligatory link to bio of Thomas Midgley Jr., a scientist instrumental in putting lead into gas AND introducing the use of CFCs.
posted by emjaybee at 10:29 AM on June 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


If there's one thing that Ghostbusters has taught us it's that the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man is NOT correlated to a crimefighter.
posted by Talez at 10:37 AM on June 2, 2011


I was a one-marshmallow kid, but only because I didn't want two.
Us one-marshmallow kids get together annually and throw down, non-delayed gratification style. Those two-marshmallow fatties are lame, and some are hoarders.
posted by hellbient at 10:46 AM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


And I want a s'more right now. Possibly because I ate paint.
posted by Sophie1 at 10:47 AM on June 2, 2011


And I want a s'more right now. Possibly because I ate paint.
posted by Sophie1 at 6:47 PM on June 2


And I want paint right now. Possibly because I ate a s'more.
posted by Decani at 10:50 AM on June 2, 2011


pass s'more paint
posted by 2bucksplus at 10:51 AM on June 2, 2011


I remember hearing about this in an episode of Radiolab, but can't find it right now. And let me just take this chance to say I fucking LOOVE Radiolab.

And s'mores. I love those too.
posted by slogger at 10:53 AM on June 2, 2011


Whenever I read about the substances your average person came into contact with from about oh 1870 to 1980, I'm amazed we survived at all.

RADIUM TOOTHPASTE.
posted by The Whelk at 10:56 AM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


The whole lead thing always makes me wonder if the Freakanomics guys took lead into account for their crime stats.
posted by drezdn at 11:00 AM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


No, Gladwell likes the one-surprising-thing causes a big trend. Abortion was his pet surprise for his crime drop explanation.
posted by kozad at 11:08 AM on June 2, 2011


This is really interesting. A few years ago, I was involved in a project that mapped potential lead exposure in Milwaukee neighborhoods. The areas of the highest risk also had the highest crime rates. I'm not claiming one caused the other, since the areas with highest lead exposure are also the poorest, and poverty has a known effect on crime, but it's definitely intriguing.
posted by desjardins at 11:20 AM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


DU> How much lead was there in the environment in pre-industrial times? I know it was used for roofs and city plubming and stuff, but peasant farm children presumably wouldn't have much exposure. How were crime levels there?

Via Alex Tabarrok, long-term trends in homicide rates. It's not quite the data breakdown you'd like, and it focuses on homicide instead of giving all crime rates, but there you go.
posted by UrineSoakedRube at 11:24 AM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Whelk: "RADIUM TOOTHPASTE.
"

Oh my god, he isn't kidding.
posted by schmod at 11:25 AM on June 2, 2011


For those who enjoyed this study and want a Freakonomics-style treatment of it and other case studies or Actual Scientific Experiments on decision-making, check out How we decide by Jonah Lehrer. It's a good basic introduction and has citations to heavier literature for those who want to pursue it.
posted by whatzit at 11:26 AM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


These are older maps than the ones I was thinking of, but here are lead poisoning rates in 1999 and here is a map of violent crime in 2000. For those unfamiliar with the area, upper middle class and rich people live on the eastern edge of the city, and the area shown in the box is one of the poorest in the city.
posted by desjardins at 11:26 AM on June 2, 2011


So, because crime correlates with lead exposure, we get to go straight to pseudoscientific argle-bargle about "the criminal mind" without even mentioning how well both crime and lead exposure correlate with poverty? This seems less like neato science and more like an explanation very carefully crafted to avoid talking about how despair, stress, and lack of opportunity are socially imposed. Fittingly, since we're living in a new Gilded Age, shallowly anticulturalist cognitive explanations of complex social phenomena are the new phrenology — and maybe also the groundwork for the new Social Darwinism, since the familiar next step here is to blame poverty on poor delayed-gratification impulse control. "Freakanomics" is the anti-social science.
posted by RogerB at 11:27 AM on June 2, 2011 [3 favorites]


Yeah crime rates are doing nothing but falling over the long term (centuries). So you have to approach the question from the long term perspective. I suspect standard of living and education are primary factors, since they are the two big changes over the long term.
posted by stbalbach at 11:28 AM on June 2, 2011


Whenever I read about the substances your average person came into contact with from about oh 1870 to 1980, I'm amazed we survived at all.

A lot of people born then didn't survive.

Heck, I was born on the tail end there and frankly I'm not sure I'm going to pull through.
posted by weston at 11:32 AM on June 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


Don't be fooled, the government wants the lead out of our paint in order to reduce the shielding effect it has on our homes. How else are they going to read our minds while we sleep and steal our dreams?
posted by blue_beetle at 11:36 AM on June 2, 2011


The Whelk: RADIUM TOOTHPASTE.

schmod: Oh my god, he isn't kidding.

Why stop with toothpaste, when the curative powers of radium are so great? Try some delicious RADIUM EVERYTHING!
posted by filthy light thief at 11:44 AM on June 2, 2011


This should be fairly easy to determine a geographic correlation while controlling for poverty - are kids who grew up in houses built after 19XX less likely to commit crime than kids who grew up in houses built before 19XX? Many of the houses on the east side of Milwaukee were built in the same time frame as those west of the river (before 1940), but since the east side owners had more money, they were more likely to keep the houses painted and that reduced the likelihoods of their kids eating paint chips. There are lots of slumlords and derelict houses west of the river. However, surely we can find poor neighborhoods around the country with newer housing stock that is less prone to containing lead-based paint? Perhaps Los Angeles? What is the crime rate in those neighborhoods?
posted by desjardins at 11:47 AM on June 2, 2011


However, surely we can find poor neighborhoods around the country with newer housing stock that is less prone to containing lead-based paint? Perhaps Los Angeles? What is the crime rate in those neighborhoods?

Well but lead-based paint wasn't entirely outlawed till 1977. So most "old" housing stock would fall into that time period.
posted by emjaybee at 11:57 AM on June 2, 2011


How much lead was there in the environment in pre-industrial times? I know it was used for roofs and city plubming and stuff, but peasant farm children presumably wouldn't have much exposure. How were crime levels there?

If you drank wine sweetened with lead acetate, smelted, worked as a painter or potter, mined lead, used lead cookware or used herbal/folk remedies containing lead you were exposed. If you could even get pre-industrial crime stats that are reliable.
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:04 PM on June 2, 2011


Well but lead-based paint wasn't entirely outlawed till 1977.

Right, well, but there have been plenty of houses built since 1977. I'm not sure how many are occupied by poor people, but surely there must be some? A map would be easily achievable by cross-referencing census data on age of housing vs poverty rates. Maybe I'll do that tonight.
posted by desjardins at 12:06 PM on June 2, 2011


Also, when one is talking about comparing crime rates, you have to consider that the definition of crime has changed over the years (cough Drug War cough), so it might be best to pick a crime that has always been illegal, for example, murder. Although then murder rates are probably correlated with the availability of guns. Property crimes, perhaps?
posted by desjardins at 12:09 PM on June 2, 2011


And damnit, stop playing with language to make your story more intriguing!

"Can marshmallows be the link that helps explain falling crime rates and increased environmental cleanliness?" No.

"A possible link between pollution and crime—and marshmallows" -- isn't actually a link between at all!

Marshmallows were the test, not the connection or cause of anything else. It was a simple test of the understanding of delayed gratification and impulse control: one marshmallow now, or two later.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:12 PM on June 2, 2011 [7 favorites]


Yeah, Filth light thief, you're completely correct, I definitely twisted the wording around. Because of marshmallows! Everyone loves marshmallows!And I wanted to be liked...
posted by BevosAngryGhost at 12:21 PM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


On reflection, you may have been accusing the article author. Apparently I have a guilty conscience about my complicity in following her lead.
posted by BevosAngryGhost at 12:24 PM on June 2, 2011


Was anyone else wondering how much lead was in marshmallows?
posted by desjardins at 12:30 PM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


Although then murder rates are probably correlated with the availability of guns.

Less than you would expect, or at least it doesn't seem to vary that much once you have some minimal availability. There are millions of guns produced each year, the things rarely wear out, so the number in circulation tends to increase. So if that was true we'd tend to see an increase in crime, particularly during the last decade or so as there has been a liberalization of gun laws.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:42 PM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


I know a family who's child suffered from lead poisioning not 5 years ago. There are still plenty of lead paint chips to go around.
posted by Ad hominem at 12:55 PM on June 2, 2011


Leaded gasoline is better for your engine, and unleaded gasoline is an effort by the auto industry to make engines crap out and need replacement sooner.

Gee, thanks for the insight, Mr Jeremy Clarksonesque car knob.

Leaded gasoline creates leaded exhaust, which goes into the air, where you inhale it (which is bad), and coats everything it settles on with a layer of lead (which is bad).

And it eats through catalytic converters (which are good) like nothing else.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:59 PM on June 2, 2011


Leaded gasoline is better for your engine, and unleaded gasoline is an effort by the auto industry to make engines crap out and need replacement sooner.

Luckily, we still make leaded gasoline but it's only for export into foreign kids countries.

Also, it's nice to see that victorian social values are still alive in well in psychology, or whatever the fuck you call this kind of crap. First, you start with trying to prove that self-restraint and delayed gratification i.e. the anglo-saxon work ethic are actually scientifically proven to lead to a better life. Then, you show that crime is actually the result of personal moral failings, only instead of being the result of sinful values the sin is a product of lead poisoning.
posted by ennui.bz at 1:07 PM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


Was anyone else wondering how much lead was in marshmallows?

The testing was done in the late sixties. I'd assume they were made with practical and cheap lead acetate instead of costly sugar.
posted by bonehead at 1:09 PM on June 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


Falling crime rates? When was Roe decided? 1973.

Abortion rates level off after about 7 years, in 1980.

Crimes rates start dropping in 1992, falling until 2000, before leveling off.
posted by orthogonality at 1:22 PM on June 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


self-restraint and delayed gratification

What do you have against self-restraint? Is delayed gratification a WASP thing? If so, turns out most of my family from Turkey are WASPs.
posted by Mister_A at 1:30 PM on June 2, 2011


I think we all need to take a breath, and repeat slowly, correlation does not imply causation.
posted by StrangerInAStrainedLand at 1:55 PM on June 2, 2011


Correlation and causation are often seen together, though.
posted by hattifattener at 2:04 PM on June 2, 2011


Coincidence? I think not!
posted by bonehead at 2:15 PM on June 2, 2011


I think we all need to take a breath, and repeat slowly, correlation does not imply causation.

Well, no, actually, it does, and that's exactly the problem with this kind of dumbfuckery; for, while correlation does imply causation--which is why "scientists say" PR pieces are so effective--it does not equal causation.
posted by Sys Rq at 2:19 PM on June 2, 2011


Well, no, actually, it does, and that's exactly the problem with this kind of dumbfuckery; for, while correlation does imply causation--which is why "scientists say" PR pieces are so effective--it does not equal causation.

"Correlation does not imply causation" is an extremely common phrase that is, I believe, normally interpreted to mean something more along the lines of "does not equal" rather than "does not suggest."

However, I do believe we can both agree on the meaning of "dumbfuckery" and the appropriateness of its usage in this case.
posted by StrangerInAStrainedLand at 3:19 PM on June 2, 2011


Does the marshmallow test really tell us anything useful? Particularly for crime-fighting?

I mean, it either determines people are born with baked-in impulse control/delayed gratification so we can't change them, or society is hopeless to change these things.

I can see educational applications (sort kids who are more intrinsically motivated from kids who need more help), but not so much crime-fighting applications. Profiling people on such an arbitrary test seems Orwellian, and what would we do with that data? Prioritize investigating one-marshmallowers in crime investigations? Maybe it could be an interesting factor in a larger test (like how childhood bedwetting is a question psychologists often investigate when trying to determine if a patient has antisocial personality disorder), but hailing this as the test that separates good, self starting citizens from criminals who act on their impulses just seems lazy.
posted by mccarty.tim at 3:39 PM on June 2, 2011


MetaFilter: the marshmallow test
posted by hippybear at 3:45 PM on June 2, 2011


Apparently the Romans knew of lead poisoning, made many aqueducts with lead anyways. It seems controversial as to whether lead poisoning was one of causes of the decline of the Roman Empire, but at least a possibility.
posted by cogpsychprof at 6:19 PM on June 2, 2011


Luckily, we still make leaded gasoline but it's only for export into foreign countries small aircraft.
posted by ryanrs at 6:34 PM on June 2, 2011


I mean, it either determines people are born with baked-in impulse control/delayed gratification so we can't change them, or society is hopeless to change these things.

Having a genetic or other fixed-from-birth cause doesn't mean something is impossible to change or imply that society has no choice but to just give up on people who have it.

Take astigmatism for example, which runs in families (but also has environmental causes). That doesn't prevent it being treatable or even curable via glasses, corrective surgery, eye exercises etc. Why should behavioural problems be any different? Why is there an assumption that an "in-born" genetic explanation implies hopelessness? Even if it did, that wouldn't make it false.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 7:29 PM on June 2, 2011


Apparently the Romans knew of lead poisoning, made many aqueducts with lead anyways. It seems controversial as to whether lead poisoning was one of causes of the decline of the Roman Empire, but at least a possibility.

Clearly they all ate the first marshmallow, and that was that.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:37 PM on June 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure about the marshmallow experiments, but the BB article seems to be conflating it with another set of arguments about intelligence and childhood lead exposure.

WaPo article.
posted by sneebler at 7:47 PM on June 2, 2011


Fittingly, since we're living in a new Gilded Age, shallowly anticulturalist cognitive explanations of complex social phenomena are the new phrenology

This throws the baby out with the bathwater. What the marshmallow experiments helped to create was learning exercises and environments that would help kids who exhibited an inability to put off present gain for future reward. Just like any other science, the cognitive sciences can be used for good, or evil.
posted by Vibrissae at 10:21 PM on June 2, 2011


China took the lead of its gasoline nine years ago, and lead levels in Chinese children's blood have been dropping. But many factory towns are poisoning their people with lead, hydroxybenzene, and all kinds of nasty chemicals.

China has been accused of trying to cover up the extent of lead poisoning among children, and of blocking effective testing and treatment.
posted by homunculus at 9:18 AM on June 15, 2011


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