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You don't really want that cookie; in fact, it's not even a cookie

April 6, 2009 |  6:26 pm

Cookies Bad habits and willpower must be on a lot of minds these days. That's great -- I'm all for other people trying to break their bad habits and develop willpower.

In today's Health section, there's Habits can be broken, but not forgotten. Writer Karen Ravn warns us, somewhat harshly: "Chances are, you have a few habits you wish you didn't have, and quite possibly you've tried (and tried and tried) to break them. Scientists are learning why you may have failed (and failed and failed). In fact, they now know that once you have a habit, you can never really unlearn it."

She's a comfort. No, truly. Because then she advises us in Tips on breaking bad habits how to, if not unlearn bad habits, at least not to be controlled by them.  

My favorite is the "if-then" plan. Essentially, if you have a specific negative thought, then you perform a specific act to help overcome it. Food cravings and tennis game performances are used as examples. You should try it. Let me know if it works.

And today, NPR weighed in as well. (The media ... we really only want what's best for everyone.)

In Your Health: Willpower: A Game of Strategy, Alix Spiegel offers up a story involving a fascinating experiment with marshmallows or cookies and 4-year-olds possessing varying degrees -- none of them large -- of self-control.

In the study, the researcher told the kids, before leaving the room, that they could have a nearby treat right away or wait until he got back and have two treats. Many succumbed immediately. Others attempted to distract themselves, then succumbed. And we all know which type of 4-year-old we would have been.

Distraction is fine and can work, but the researcher also tried to get the children to think of the way they thought about the treat. The story says: "So, for example, to help the children resist the treat, before leaving the room Mischel told the kids to imagine the treat in front of them differently. 'I told them to think about those marshmallows as if they were just cotton puffs, or clouds. Those instructions to the 4-year-old had a dramatic effect on her ability to wait for the thing that she couldn't wait for before.'"

Apparently 4-year-olds have much to teach us all. 

-- Tami Dennis

Photo: They're not melt-in-your-mouth hazelnut chocolate Linzer cookies; they're just round, um, cardboard-y things. Really.

Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times