Previous: Why Do I Have to Use a Number 2 Pencil?
Next: SciShow Talk Show: Environmental Engineer Mike Potts & Slick the Tiger Salamander



View count:730,787
Last sync:2023-01-13 07:30
Hundreds of thousands of people have clicked a button on reddit. Turns out that when you click can reveal a lot about your brain, and human nature.

Hosted by: Michael Aranda
Dooblydoo thanks go to the following Patreon supporters -- we couldn't make SciShow without them! Shout out to Justin Lentz, John Szymakowski, Ruben Galvao, and Peso255.
Like SciShow? Want to help support us, and also get things to put on your walls, cover your torso and hold your liquids? Check out our awesome products over at DFTBA Records:

Or help support us by becoming our patron on Patreon:
Looking for SciShow elsewhere on the internet?

(SciShow Intro plays)

Michael: Do you really want to get to know someone?  Show them a button, and see if they push it.  On April 1st, Reddit did exactly that, and since then, hundreds of thousands of people have taken part in what has turned into, essentially, a giant social experiment, and it's teaching us a lot about the psychology of delayed gratification.  The Button is simply a page on Reddit with a timer that counts down from 60 seconds, and a clickable button that's next to it.  Whenever a Reddit user clicks on the button anywhere in the world, the timer resets, but you can only click it once, then you get a little colored circle next to your name called 'flair' that displays the time on the countdown when you clicked.  So the lower your number is, the longer you waited before clicking the button without someone else clicking it before you, and it didn't take long for a hierarchy of users to be established, based on those colored flairs.  

According to the weird, internal logic of the Reddit button, a lower number equals more bragging rights, because it probably means you waited a really long time or made some other sacrifice like signing on in the middle of the night to find that rare moment when fewer people were clicking.  Basically, you wanted it more.  You were more patient, or maybe you were just lucky.  But either way, you earned a shiny new flair.  But the status of button clickers has been shifting lately because more people are taking part and presumably taking more extreme measures to get the lowest number possible.  After the first week, the lowest time that people had reached before clicking was 35 seconds, and users with that number reigned supreme.  But after two weeks, the new best time was 27 seconds, so the 35 second pressers weren't special anymore.  So.  Patience, reward, gratification.  You know what this reminds me of?  Marshmallows, duh.  

In 1972, Stanford psychology Walter Mischel wanted to test self-control in children.  The dynamics that he studied were kind of similar to those in the button.  Mischel and his team gathered 92 subjects, ages 3-5, and put each kid in a room with a marshmallow.  He told the child he'd leave the room for a little bit, and if they didn't eat the marshmallow while he was gone, they'd get two marshmallows when he came back.  Then he left for 15 minutes and watched what happened.  It turned out that as a whole, kids aren't very good at waiting, even if it means double the marshmallows, but some children were better at it than others, and that's kind of what's happening with the button, except that the average Reddit user is between 25 and 34 years old, and instead of marshmallows, users are being rewarded for their patience with supposedly higher status.  

So why are some people content with clicking the timer while it's still in the 50s, while others are putting in a lot of effort to achieve a higher status?  Well, it's basically a game, so not everyone who clicks is taking it all that seriously, but it also has to do with what Mischel and his team called the hot-and-cool system.  The cool system is your more logical side, reminding you about the extra marshmallow and all the reasons why you should wait, but the hot system is much more sensitive to emotions, basically it's the voice of temptation.  Mischel proposed that in some people, it's much easier to trigger the impulsive hot system, which overrides the rational cool system, these people struggle a lot more with self-control.  

Years later, when Mischel followed up with his test subjects, he found that those who had waited for the second marshmallow as kids were better planners and better students as teenagers.  And then in 2011, Mischel and a new team brought 59 of the original subjects back for yet another test, this time to see how quickly their hot systems might be triggered by certain images.  It's been shown that people respond impulsively and emotionally to happy faces, so the team told the subjects to press a button only when a neutral face was on the screen.  The idea was that those people with more self-control would be less apt to react to the happy faces, and as it turned out, those who couldn't wait for the second marshmallow as children were more likely to still have trouble with impulse control.  The team repeated the test with 26 of the subjects, this time while scanning their brains, and found that the so-called "high-delayers", that is, those who'd waited for the second marshmallow, had a more active prefrontal cortex, where the brain processes impulses and controls and behavior.  The low-delayers, meanwhile, showed more activity in what's called the inferior frontal gyrus, a deeper region of the brain that's linked to addiction and pleasure.  

So it may not be a controlled experiment worthy of Mischel and other scientists of the human mind, but Reddit's button is just another reminder that where there are lots of people, there will be lots of psychology to study.  The real question is, have you pressed the Button?  What time did you get?  Let us know.  And while you're at it, why not click this button to go to where you can help support the show while getting cool stuff like exclusive Fancy Facts every month, and if you want to keep getting smarter with us, just go to and subscribe.  

(SciShow Endscreen plays)