Coming Soon to a Smart Phone Very Near You

Are You Too Impulsive? Cornell Tech Wants To Help

Peter McCarthy
Impulsive Indulgences
Impulsive Indulgences
Photo courtesy of Pixabay / CCO Public Domain

Are you at risk with "unhealthy actions such as overeating, drinking to excess, gambling"...or normalizing Donald Trump? If so, our soon to be Roosevelt Island neighbor Cornell Tech, The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research and Sage Bionetworks are pioneering 21st Century strategies for you, except for the Trump thing, unfortunately, for which no cure is in sight.

"Impulsiveness is the inability to not act on immediate temptations despite the long-term consequences," they jointly announced in a classic double negative. What they mean is, you can't control yourself in the presence of a fudge brownie, an opened bottle of cabernet or overoptimism about the Yankees's World Series prospects.

In the mix of being imperfectly human, we all have inclinations that, if followed, may hurt us or those around us in myriad ways. For some, it's the tasty trail to overweight and ill health. Others can't resist a get rich scheme that's, as usual, too good to be true or to walk away from.

Pick your poison. We have dozens of options.

In a first step at discovering more about "Impulsive acts (that) over time can lead to certain negative conditions, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, substance abuse, gambling problems and suicidal behaviors" and more, the team this week announced "the launch of a pioneering study to examine the use of a smartphone application to identify and understand impulsivity in daily life."

Smartphone Advantage

Back when I researched the elusive concept "happiness," the broadest study I found was one where scientists randomly called subjects and asked them what they were doing at that moment and how happy they were. The results showed that people were happiest while having sex, which was perplexing because who would, in those circumstances, answer the phone?

Cornell, Feinstein and Sage aim to overcome that dilemma. The goal is to start by building a smartphone app that can identify and understand impulsive behavior, and then, using that information, create additional apps that can help those of us looking for ways to change, learning to better control our impulses.

Whisking away any suggestion of a gray, scientific visage in this work is a bit of whimsy.

"This study of the app has been named the Digital Marshmallow Test, building off of the original “marshmallow test,” invented by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel and colleagues in the 1960s. It measured willpower by testing preschoolers who were given the option of either eating one mini-marshmallow right away or waiting 15 minutes to get two mini-marshmallows."

How can you not admire women and men of science willing to announce to friends, family and colleagues that they are fixing their minds on the "Digital Marshmallow Test?"

“As most individuals are only within arm’s reach of their smartphones, it is a great tool to profile impulsive behavior and see what daily factors influence it,” says Deborah Estrin, PhD, professor of Computer Science at Cornell Tech. “With the app being accessible from any smartphone, more participants can be enrolled, providing our scientific team with access to more data than ever conceived before cell phones.”

Coming soon to a small screen in your pocket.

For more information on the app and its availability, visit

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