Campus Life

Afterhours with John Gabrieli

The psych professor tells us how marshmallows may determine success

John D. Gabrieli is known by many as the 9.00 [Introduction to Psychology] professor. He also heads up a lab in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, which seeks to understand the organization of memory, thought, and emotion in the brain and how experience can alter brain function. After giving me a brief tour of the MRI machine in the Martinos Imaging Center in Building 46, Gabrieli explained why tired people cheat and why children who can make themselves wait to eat a marshmallow end up being more successful later in life.

The Tech: You went to Yale as an undergraduate. Were there any particular traditions there that you remember?

JDG: Actually, a weird thing that was kind of enjoyable to be around was that there was a facetious campaign by students to get the administration to promote more work and less sex. Students had group meetings and demonstrations. We were post-Vietnam, and I think people just didn’t have that much on their minds. It was just ridiculous and hilarious.

TT: You obtained a bachelor’s degree in English, but now you’re a professor of psychology. Was it difficult to switch?

JDG: It wasn’t a difficult switch. What really transformed me was an experience I had when, almost randomly, I got a job here as a research assistant to Suzanne Corkin [professor of behavioral neuroscience]. I had never really taken psychology as an undergrad, but the brain thing sounded kind of interesting, and the more I saw of it the more I just loved it. In one sense it’s like literature, storytelling. How are people and why do they behave the way they do? Then it had this science piece of experimentation and research, which appealed to me. It seemed like a grown-up, real thing to do — that combination of studying people, but having some scientific perspective on it.

TT: In 9.00 you show your class hundreds of different studies from modern psychology. Do you have a particular favorite?

JDG: I love the marshmallow one [an experiment where young children are given a single marshmallow and told that if they wait 15 minutes to eat it, they also can have a second marshmallow]. It’s just charming and fascinating to me. The last couple years I’ve been drawn to the question: Is what we’re good at and what we do somehow in our genes at birth, somehow given to us by our environment, or somehow a product of our work effort? The kids that could wait 15 minutes scored over 200 SAT points more than the kids that could only wait 15 seconds. Whatever that means, it’s a huge difference that’s already visible in these children at age four. To what extent our fate is partly sealed by that age and in what ways can people go a different path altogether, I just think that’s an interesting question. I think it’s almost a saga of what one’s life is like. How much are we just playing out a formula? Just at a human level we tend to respect people for achievements and things like that. And where do they come from? Are they things that were handed to them in a lucky way?

TT: In 9.00 you introduce an experiment that shows that when two people meet, a person holding a hot beverage would have a much more favorable opinion of a new acquaintance than if they had been holding a cold beverage. So barring bringing someone a hot cup of coffee, do you have any interview tips or tricks you could give us?

JDG: I don’t know so much on the interview side, but this idea that small things can nudge our behavior has been very impressive to me. So the cold cup of coffee, by itself, probably that’s a tiny effect. But it could make a difference maybe if you’re talking to somebody, you talk a little bit more and maybe a friendship grows or doesn’t grow.

Another thing that I’ve been impressed by is experiments where they tire people out a little bit and then let them do something like cheat or not cheat. And if they get just a little bit tired, they’re more likely to cheat. It’s as if we all have in us angels and devils or whatever and we’re trying to do the right thing, but we know the temptations. And if our energy’s a little down, we sort of succumb to them. And I don’t think people who do really bad things do them because they’re tired or something. But I think constantly we have these little moments where we’re more or less likely to do something, and I think there’s chains that build out of that.

TT: In your research you study learning and memory. What tips do you have for students to study better or better remember all of the information they need to know for a test?

JDG: One of the giant ones is practice on tests. Practice on retrieval is just so powerful rather than restudying something again.

Another line of work that’s just been fantastically impressive, too, applies to this concept of stereotype threat. In different societies, depending on who we are — men or women, different minority groups — there’s stereotypes about what you’re supposed to be good at. So one that I think is disappearing, for example, is that women are not supposed to be good at math. It’s kind of ridiculous. But what researchers have shown is that if you remind people of that in an experimental situation, they’ll underperform compared to their ability. So men and women come in, they do a little math test. Everybody’s doing even, right? And now have people do something like tick off a box whether they’re a man or a woman on page one, turn the page, and then the women’s scores will go down some. The research is even more compelling in many ways for African Americans in academic performance because there’s been a gap in terms of educational performance in this country. So these are tough things, tough unfair things. Studies have shown that if they’re asked to write an essay on what school means to them or what math means to them in their own words, one well-controlled experiment after another has showed impressive gains in performance. It’s as if you’re inoculating individuals from this worry they have that for some reason they’re not supposed to do so well.

TT: What is your advice for students to help make them as successful possible in their studies?

JDG: My personal experience, and just what I’ve observed, is that people find their passion. That if you’re doing what you most love, somehow people flower. And there’s this sort of virtual spiral of, you do what you love, you do well, and you feel good about it because you can tell you’re doing well. I think there’s a lot of temptation to go on paths that, understandably, the world wants you to go on because they’re safer or parents understand them better. And almost always from my observations that when people do what they love, they have the best chance to really flower.

This is part of a series of interviews with MIT professors. Ever wanted to ask your professor something totally random? Send your questions and professor suggestions to