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‘C’ is for Cookie, S is for self-regulation

In 2011, PBS NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman paid a visit to Sesame Street, where he taught Grover about Walter Michel’s famous “Marshmallow Test” – a psychological experiment where a child is given a choice between eating one marshmallow now, or waiting and earning a second marshmallow later.

Grover passed the test, but not all of Sesame Street’s residents were as quick to latch on to the concept of saving. Cookie Monster, famous for his lack of willpower, quickly convinced Elmo to sacrifice a dollar on the altar of instant gratification (and cookies).

He learned eventually though. In 2013, the blue muppet, who Solman accurately described as “an icon of excess,” was featured in a series of segments promoting patience and self-regulation. A group of researchers at the University of Iowa tested the effectiveness of these segments on a group of preschool-aged children.

The marshmallow test was administered to a group of children who had been shown clips of Cookie Monster practicing self-regulation, and to a control group. The children that were exposed to what the researchers labeled “the Cookie Monster curriculum,” held out over four minutes longer during the Marshmallow Test than their non-Cookie Monster watching peers. These children also exhibited better working memory and action inhibition skills, the researchers reported.

However, the control group did display better attention inhibition skills, suggesting that the Cookie Monster curriculum group followed in the muppet’s impulsive footsteps. The clips the children watched often showed Cookie rushing to make an initial decision without listening carefully to directions. “This result may not have occurred with exposure to a more balanced curriculum featuring other, more reflective characters,” the researchers concluded.

To expel any remaining doubt about the correlation between children’s exposure to the Cookie Monster curriculum and increased ability to practice self-regulation, Deborah L. Linebarger, the study’s lead author, provided the Huffington Post with this video of a child using one of Cookie Monster’s songs to sustain himself during the Marshmallow Test.

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