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A Tale of Radishes and Cookies March 30, 2012

Posted by nrhatch in Food & Drink, Humor, Mindfulness, People.

Psychologists performed a study described in an article and video by Dan Heath:  Why Change is So Hard ~ Self Control is Exhaustible.

An excerpt from the article/video:

Students come into a lab. It smells amazing—someone has just baked chocolate-chip cookies

On a table in front of them, there are two bowls.  One has the fresh-baked cookies. The other has a bunch of radishes


Some of the students are asked to eat cookies but no radishes. Others are told to eat radishes but no cookies.

Then, the two groups are asked to do a second, seemingly unrelated task—basically a kind of logic puzzle where they have to trace out a complicated geometric pattern without raising their pencil. Unbeknownst to them, the puzzle can’t be solved.

Dan Heath, co-author of Switch ~ How To Change Things When Change Is Hard, concludes his anecdote with:

The scientists are curious how long they’ll persist at a difficult task. 

The cookie-eaters try again and again, for an average of 19 minutes, before they give up.

But the radish-eaters—they only last an average of 8 minutes. 

What gives?

The answer may surprise you:  They ran out of self-control.

James-the-CatHmm . . . I’m not convinced.

The idea that the subjects “ran out of self-control” is only ONE possible explanation for the difference . . . NOT a foregone conclusion.  Other possibilities abound.

Perhaps the people who ate the cookies:

A.  had more energy for puzzle solving due to a spike in glucose levels.
B.  didn’t realize the puzzle couldn’t be solved due to brain fog.
C.  wanted to cooperate because they’d been given fresh-baked cookies.

Likewise, perhaps the subjects offered radishes instead of cookies:

A.  stopped sooner because they were hungry and wanted to go to lunch.
B.  realized, with no sugar high, that the puzzle couldn’t be solved.
C.  resented being offered radishes instead of cookies and didn’t cooperate.

The study, as described, reminds me of something I might have set up and conducted in my freshman dorm for extra credit in Psychology 101.

Scruffy-CatEven then, with no training, I would have factored in the  immediate short-term effects of reward (chocolate chip cookies) and punishment (raw radishes) on subjects.

Perhaps there was more to the study than shared in the video.

Let’s hope so.

All I can conclude from this study (as recounted) . . . if we want people to participate and cooperate fully when we ask them to solve impossible puzzles, we should serve cookies, not radishes.

Let yourself be drawn by the pull of what you really love.  ~ Rumi

Aah . . . that’s better!

Related posts: Ego Depletion (additional data on the radish/cookie study) * Lazy or Exhausted ~ Radishes or Cookies (T4D) * Don’t Monkey With Equitable Pay (T4D)


1. suzicate - March 30, 2012

See, chocolate chip cookies really can save the world!

nrhatch - March 30, 2012

Exactly . . . peace talks would be far more productive if speakers shared warm cookies with the audience first.

All we need is love . . . and chocolate!

pix & kardz - March 30, 2012

and radishes! 😀

nrhatch - March 30, 2012

They do add a cheery bite and tang to salads. 😀

2. Maggie - March 30, 2012

Interesting experiment… but it proves what we already know – give a good incentive and things will be done better and more efficiently and correctly.

nrhatch - March 30, 2012

Unless, of course, people eat too many cookies and need a nap following the sudden drop in blood sugar levels. 😆

3. BrainRants - March 30, 2012

I’d pick radishes because they’re awesome. Did anyone consider that the 8-min radish eaters stopped because they lost self-control and ate the cookies? Hmm.

nrhatch - March 30, 2012

That’s it! They dropped their pencils to grab a couple handfuls of cookies! 😀

Another useful motivating tool (for many) . . . beer. And bacon.

4. Andra Watkins - March 30, 2012

How can I feed chocolate chip cookies through my blog? 🙂

nrhatch - March 30, 2012

Would it be great if we had transporters to send tasty morsels through cyber space?

Especially when we visited FOOD BLOGS. Yum . . .

5. DarkEarthAngels - March 30, 2012

One is like a reward and another like a consolation prize – I know which one would motivate me to do a non-do-able puzzle 😉 x

nrhatch - March 30, 2012

From what I read, the experiment was flawed from the start . . . with far too many variables between hypothesis and conclusion.

It does prove that using radishes as “carrots” won’t work . . . except for donkeys, mules, and asses. Hee Haw! 😆

6. Piglet in Portugal - March 30, 2012

It is a well known fact Radish is brain food and as such the radish eaters were quick to realise the puzzle could not be solved. Where the brain of the cookie eaters was poisend by sugar.

nrhatch - March 30, 2012

I think you’re right, PiP! That’s a far better conclusion to reach than the one they reached . . . that the subjects stopped because they ran out of will power and self control.

I also expect that resentment about the radishes entered into the picture . . . Why am I wasting my time with this? To nibble on more radishes? No way, Jose! I’m done. 😛

7. Sandra Bell Kirchman - March 30, 2012

I like the way you think, Nancy…and the replies from your other readers are quite entertaining as well.

nrhatch - March 30, 2012

Thanks, Sandra! Have a cookie! 😀

8. cuhome - March 30, 2012

I would hope there was more to this study than shared! For one thing, it doesn’t sound like all possible variables were controlled for. What, exactly, is the difference between the cookie eaters and the radish eaters? What types of medications were they taking? How much sleep did they get the night before? Did someone just break up with their s/o? Who drank coffee that morning and who didn’t? Who did this study? If the report you gave is all there was to it, it was poorly designed and not scientific. It drives me crazy when I hear about studies being done, as if using the word “study” makes it official and reliable. We’d all be chasing our tails if we believed everything we heard just because it appeared in a published study!

nrhatch - March 30, 2012

I just revised the post to clarify that the article/video is by Dan Heath, one of the authors of Switch ~ How To Change Things When Change Is Hard. He found the study “fascinating.”


Like you, I found it flawed . . . at least as described.

nrhatch - March 30, 2012

I just read some of the reviews for the book . . . quite a few people found it flawed in more than a few ways.

Why am I not surprised? 😉

9. pix & kardz - March 30, 2012

very fascinating study. i actually checked out the video at the link you provided. from a lay person’s perspective i agree with you – the arrived at conclusion of exhaustion is only one of several possible interpretations, some of which you have indicated.
in addition to C, maybe those who ate the cookies were also subconsciously driven by the memory of the cookies – and looking for further reward if they accomplished the task successfully.
and i also wonder if on an emulated test with a different group of participants, if the results would be identical.
in any case, i think i would have preferred the radishes anyhow, especially if they are nice and crisp 🙂

pix & kardz - March 30, 2012

of course – YMMG (you made me google). there was something rather dissatisfying to me about this study, as the conclusion seemed too finite as you indicated, and it left so many open-ended questions, such as the ones raised by cuhome. so i found something on the original study – which was done in 1998 by the way – by Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, and Tice. There were more tests done than the one portrayed in the video, and quite a number of controls were in place, and the final conclusion is also not one etched in stone – which is also somewhat heartening.
Anyhow, for more info on the discussion, feel to take a look here<

and after all that – i still feel sorry for the radishes being given such a bad rap. if you were making a tossed green salad – what would you rather put into it – fresh, cheerful radishes, or a crummy cookie? 😀

nrhatch - March 30, 2012

Thanks so much, Kris! You rock. So do radishes . . . except when I’m in the mood for chocolate chip cookies. 😀

I enjoyed reading about the initial studies on Ego Depletion and added a link to the article. The working theory of Ego Depletion seems to support the conclusion reached by Dan Heath . . . if not quite so definitively as he states in the video.

pix & kardz - March 30, 2012

i would love to see another study done which brings up even more questions on this.
anyhow – i do have a technical question for you. i recently tried to post an image in one of my replies on my blog, like you did with the book review above. how did you do that – or do you know of a WordPress link or other html info which could help me do that? All I ended up with was an ugly-looking link, not a nice pic. Any help or suggestions you can offer would be greatly appreciated. i am not very tech-savvy.
but at least i know a good radish when i meet one 😀 thanks!

nrhatch - March 30, 2012

Try it with a link to a book on Amazon . . . and it should import a pretty picture (using Amazon’s software).

Also, youtube links generally embed the actual video for playing in the comment thread.

Most other URLs, as you’ve noted, just sit there looking ugly.

BTW: The very first seeds I ever grew myself . . . RADISHES!

pix & kardz - March 30, 2012

thanks for the info. i wasn’t going for a book link or youtube. thought i would try it with one of my own photos.
i guess those don’t work. good to know. thanks much again! have a great weekend!

nrhatch - March 30, 2012

I don’t remember ever seeing a photo in a WP comment thread . . . except for Amazon and youtube.

pix & kardz - March 30, 2012

and congrats on your first radishes – how fun!

10. creatingreciprocity - March 30, 2012

Are those the researchers conclusions or yours?

nrhatch - March 30, 2012

I’m not sure what you’re asking. The information in italics is from Dan Heath.

My only “conclusion” is in the last paragraph (right before the Rumi quote). 😀

11. sufilight - March 30, 2012

Nancy, this is my wish list to read, and will check out my local library’s catalog to see if they have it. The radish eaters were probably bored and not willing to cooperate. If they want my cooperation, feed me cookies! 🙂

nrhatch - March 30, 2012

Let me know what you think of it. The reviews on Amazon were split . . . with some people loving it and others proclaiming it a waste of money.

Anytime someone tells me that I can’t have cookies . . . they are unlikely to get my full cooperation from that point forward. 😀

12. Patricia - March 30, 2012

If there were cookies–any kind–and radishes on the table and I was told I could only have the radishes I would abstain. If I had to sit there a long time I might just eat a cookie allowed or not.

nrhatch - March 30, 2012

I expect I might do the same. 😉

I like radishes . . . but not as a between meal snack.

13. Crowing Crone Joss - March 30, 2012

I’d be the one sneaking a cookie when no one was looking. or saying “well, I could probably solve this if you gave me just ONE more cookie”. heh heh

nrhatch - March 30, 2012

Yes! The radish eaters went “on strike ~ they stopped working prematurely hoping that the scientists would bribe them to keep trying by offering them . . . COOKIES! 😀

Crowing Crone Joss - March 30, 2012

I wants cookies. but, it’s bedtime, so guess I have to go dream of them instead.

nrhatch - March 30, 2012

Sweet Dreams!

14. souldipper - March 30, 2012

My psych prof would have had a heyday with that paper!

I think, Nancy, anyone near a university would never dare…

nrhatch - March 30, 2012

I’m guessing that the pool of volunteers dwindled up for these scientists as soon as word got out that they were serving up RADISHES as a “reward.” 😆

I’m glad that Kris found the original study ~ there was a control group that got neither cookies nor radishes. No reward . . . but no need for will power either since NO FOOD was around.

They worked on the impossible puzzle almost as long as those who got cookies . . . tending to substantiate that relying on will power to effect change can be rather exhausing work.

The trick for me when I want to change is to change my thoughts FIRST so I am not giving up a “bad habit” . . . I am claiming something better that I truly want (e.g., HEALTH).

15. bluebee - March 30, 2012

If i’d smelled baking cookies and had been served up radishes I’d defintely have felt resentful, but for my other half it would have been the opposite – one woman’s cookie is another man’s radish. Definitely flawed, and a simplistic conclusion by the researchers. Also, not every change is going to exhaust self-control – it depends entirely on the change.

nrhatch - March 30, 2012

Yup. It depends on what we are trying to change, why we are trying to change it . . . AND what thoughts we are thinking.

If we feel deprived about what we are giving up (e.g., not eating cake), we resent the changes we “have” to make.

If we feel energized by the healthy changes we are making (e.g. walking more and eating less) . . . we don’t feel deprived or resentful. We feel REWARDED. All GAIN . . . No Pain. 😀

16. Three Well Beings - March 30, 2012

I think I’m just impressed that people were persistent for 8 full minutes–all for a radish! On the other hand, look how long we spend solving problems at the computer, or attempting to uncomplicate glitches with WordPress…we keep at it, and I don’t get a cookie reward! I, for one, am not consistent in my self-control, but when I want a particular outcome I can be very dedicated 🙂 Debra

nrhatch - March 31, 2012

We often have competing motivations . . . giving ourselves “gold stars” and “pats on the back” for persistence, consistency, cooperation with others, being a team player, etc.

If we want something bad enough (e.g., to unglitch a glitch), we don’t look at the time we are expending to solve the problem, we look at the horizon to what we will gain. We keep our eyes on the “prize” to keep ourselves motivated to “keep on going.”

The farther the horizon, the more we benefit from giving ourselves short-term incremental rewards.

For example, if we need to lose 100 pounds . . . planning small celebrations (without cake or cookies!!!) every 10-20 pounds makes sense as a motivational tool. Even more important with a long-term goal like that . . . to focus on the immediate benefits along the way ~ increased energy, sleeping better, etc.

17. JannatWrites - March 31, 2012

I would like to be in the cookie group, please 🙂

The problem with studying the human mind is…that it’s the human mind. We think differently and have different motivators. An observer drawing conclusions has to be careful that their own bias isn’t responsible for the result.

nrhatch - March 31, 2012

I’m sure that my bias is showing. 😉

If they offered me radishes and told me hands off the aromatic fresh-baked cookies, I would be “uncharitable” in my thoughts toward them.

I would be thinking “stupid scientists, why did you bake cookies if you didn’t want us to eat them?” which would segue into “stupid puzzle, it probably doesn’t even have a solution” . . . lessening my motivation to solve it.

Others, of course, would be JEALOUS of those who got cookies, wondering why THEY were so special, “Look at them, trying to impress the scientists with how SMART they are by trying to solve this puzzle. Let them. I’m done!” :mrgreen:

18. wightrabbit - March 31, 2012

Fascinating – article and comments. But I conclude that the experiment was, ultimately, pointless. Great discussion, though, so thank y’all!

nrhatch - March 31, 2012

From the article that Kris found on the actual studies on Ego Depletion:

Because these experiments provided no direct measure of the limited resource in question, the hypothesis of ego depletion is based on behavioral observations and analyses. As a result, it is important to consider alternative explanations for the behavior.

The conclusion from the studies:

Generally, Baumeister’s experiments showed that an act of volition, whether a choice or an effort of self-control, can cause a decrease in some sort of resource that is required for further acts of volition. Whatever this resource is, it is clear that it is both very important and very limited. It is apparent that depletion of this resource can affect decision-making and cognitive ability, which thereby can affect the way in which human beings conduct their lives.

19. sweetdaysundertheoaks - April 1, 2012

I would have had to have chocolate chip cookies!

nrhatch - April 1, 2012

We went to a potluck this week . . . I ignored the sweet treats and honed in on the raw veggies, nuts, and grains.

BFF took a few cookies. I didn’t. Not much of a sweet tooth.

BUT . . . that’s different from being told that I can’t have the cookies. That would bring out the rebellious toddler in me. 😉

20. Booksphotographsandartwork - April 1, 2012

Ta! that is so funny. I have strong food urges shall we say. I tend to binge eat. It is very difficult to resist a food that you want so very badly. For some people anyway. My hubby doesn’t really feel that way about any food. My dad, my brother and I love to eat. Good thing none of us are extremely overweight, just a little. I watch that show, My 600 pound life and it is a motivater. Kind of like Hoarders.

nrhatch - April 1, 2012

Me too! I’m far from “perfect” . . . but I don’t beat myself up too much. Watching shows like the Biggest Loser (and Hoarders) makes me feel like I’m doing “good enough.”

21. Perfecting Motherhood - April 3, 2012

Companies KNOW cookies and cake are way more effective at increasing productivity than radishes and I’ve witnessed first hand. Feed employees some sweet, yummy food and they work pretty hard when they get back to their desk.

nrhatch - April 4, 2012

I guess that’s why snack machines are loaded with sweet treats . . . without a radish in sight. 😉

Perfecting Motherhood - April 4, 2012

So true!

22. Perfecting Motherhood - April 3, 2012

By the way, I ordered that book, Switch ~ How To Change Things When Change Is Hard, a few weeks ago at the library. I hope I enjoy reading it when it comes in. It looks very interesting.

nrhatch - April 4, 2012

It got both favorable and unfavorable reviews on Amazon. The gist I got from the mix . . . it has GREAT anecdotes but fails to tie them together in a package useful to readers.

I expect that readers who prefer to think for themselves (rather than being spoonfed canned and processed thoughts) will get something out of the book. 😀

Perfecting Motherhood - April 4, 2012

Thanks! I’ll let you know what I think of it after I read it.

23. eof737 - April 22, 2012

Paid for by a cookie company? 😆

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