"The Real Marshmallow Test"
March 13, 2016
Given at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto, CA
The marshmallow test is a series of psychological research studies by Walter Mischel and various research assistants and followers of his. The gist of the test is that a four-year-old is given a choice between one marshmallow (or cookie or pretzel, sometimes) right now, or two treats if now or two if the child can wait some designated amount of time, such as 10 or 15 minutes. The kids did variously well or badly at this task, teaching Mischel and the other researchers something about delayed gratification.
In his decades of work on this subject, Mischel has been particularly interested in the how: how do the kids who manage to put off the temptation of the marshmallow so that they can have double the treat, do it? He's found that distraction is very helpful. The kids who do worse tend to focus on that treat. They can see it right there and if they say "Marshmallow, marshmallow!" they tend to give in, whereas those who can make themselves think about something else find that the 10 minutes go by more easily.
Likewise, changing how you see the desired object is a very good way to delay gratification. Maria Konnikova, a student of Mischel, explains: "Put a frame around it in your mind, as if it were a picture or photograph, to make the temptation less immediate. One boy in Mischel's test was initially unable to wait," she writes, "but, with careful instruction, eventually learned to hold out. When Mischel asked him what had changed, the boy replied, 'You can't eat a picture.'"
So, good techniques. So far, so good! It's important to be able to delay gratification; it's a really good life skill. If you can put off pleasure, you can benefit a lot. This goes for everything from paying cash rather than credit, to sticking with a healthful diet (which isn't nearly as much fun in the short term as chocolate cake, but pays off in the long run), to saving for a big purchase. It applies anywhere that working hard when we'd rather goof off can get us somewhere; when we'd like to save up instead of joyfully spending what we've got right now; it applies to studying to get a better job when it's really hard to be working and going to school. And we can learn a lot from all these studies on how to do it—what works.
Well, then the researchers started doing follow-up studies on what became of these children. Mischel recalls, "It was only as an afterthought that I looked at differences between these kids as time passed. But the more I looked, the more I saw how dramatic some of these differences turned out to be." Kids who at four years old were able to delay gratification and get the better reward, in their young adulthood were more successful by various measures: "competence" in adolescence, as measured by the adults in their lives; higher SAT scores; lower body mass index; lower rates of drug abuse; even lower rates of divorce and separation.
This is where I start to think, "Uh oh."
You can just watch the wheels turning. You can read the interpretations saying that people do worse on tests, have worse behavior, are less successful in life because of qualities they possessed when they were four years old. It becomes an explanation, an excuse, for the pervasive, the escalating inequality in our society, and this is a problem.
Now, Mischel does not want to argue that we are innately capable of more or less delaying of gratification. Some people have more of a talent for it, but he believes very strongly that these are skills that can be taught and should be taught. That's good to know, but still . . . these studies are looking at the issue much too narrowly.
How much of the difference between the kids who can delay gratification and the kids who struggle with it is based on factors that were well in place when they came into the lab, and that continue throughout life? For example, there's the issue of trust. What if a child has learned through experience that the people who promise a reward are not to be trusted—that they're unreliable? By the way, later iterations of the experiment did just that. Some experimenters lied and then they found that on the next round, the kids who were lied to were, not surprisingly much less likely to delay gratification. They'd go for what they were offered right then and there. But what I'd like to know is how reliable the kids found adults, in general. Because by the time you're four years old, you have a lot of reason to believe, either that adults come through with what they have promised, or they often don't. Even if the tester, the person with the white coat in the lab, is honest, if adults in this kid's life regularly fail to come through, the child will be making a rational decision if he grabs the one marshmallow.
And there's a parallel here to the state of our social contract, which is not good. We would like to believe—and we say—that if you work hard, develop skills, in short delay gratification, you'll be rewarded: you'll get a good job, you'll live a stable life, you'll be able to retire one day. At least, your chances of doing all these things will be greatly enhanced. Well, that might work in the lab, but it doesn't actually work in the society and economy that we've structured. It was never true for everyone, and it is less and less true for a wider range of people now. I mean, we haven't even made the choice to allow people to keep a larger percentage of what they earn from working than other people do from what they make on investments. In a society where one can work very hard—like Maria in the song we heard, "only working, only working"–and come away with very little, it's just rational to grab what you can early on. It's not a sign of poor self-control or bad training or lack of discernment; it's the smart thing to do.
And then there's the question of whether you can delay gratification if the cost is just too high for you. Imagine a child coming into this lab who likes sweets. Okay, that's who the test was designed for. Now imagine a kid coming in who hasn't eaten yet that day. That kid is going to be far more likely to go for the one marshmallow. It's just easier to put off the reward if you're not that hungry.
The parallels to this show up all over our economic system. For example: rich people, if they're smart pay cash, the cheap way to buy things; poor people buy on credit, adding interest to the original cost. The poorer you are, the worse deal you're going to make: not just loans for houses and cars, but payday loans, high-interest credit cards, charging for things that don't cost that much, like groceries; pawning things that you own. This is not because the rich people understand the costs of borrowing and the poor people don't. The poor people don't have the money. They won't have cash in hand until payday, and food can't wait. When you're in that kind of bind, by paying more later, you're making a rational choice. You know you're paying more, but you're doing what you need to do. Yet we so often act as if people in that bind are being irrational, unable to delay gratification, and our public policies reflect that belief. Our public policies around wealth, around financial issues of all kinds, and especially around poverty, reflect the conviction that an inability to delay gratification is a primary cause of inequality.
And then we have a system that has always favored some people more than others based on no rational characteristic at all. We say that hard work will pay off, but in fact, throughout this country's history, when black people did too well, they were often punished. In Tulsa, in 1921, there was a mostly African-American neighborhood, a middle- and upper-class neighborhood, called Greenwood. It was known as "Black Wall Street"; there was tremendous wealth and success in this community; it was the wealthiest black community in the United States. And in 1921, white people in Tulsa rioted. They invaded the neighborhood, destroyed Greenwood, left at least 10,000 African American residents homeless and at least 50, possibly as many as 300, dead. Thirty years later (just to give one other example from a long history of these kinds of incidents), black family moved into a nice neighborhood in Cicero, Illinois: a formerly only white neighborhood. A mob of 4,000 people showed up and demanded that they leave. When they refused, they were driven out, and everything they had was destroyed: their property thrown out of the windows, stomped on, burned. And the message in Tulsa, in Cicero, and wherever and whenever white supremacy was allowed its voice in this culture was: if you delay gratification, use self-control, save and succeed, African-Americans, we will make sure you are made worse off than you were before. And while white people might not learn this history, African-Americans do. They know the story that's being told; they know the risks of delaying gratification.
Today is Girl Scout Sunday; we have 14 of the Girl Scouts in this congregation participating in this service. And girls, we are teaching you to be empowered, to develop character, to make good decisions–that's what the Girl Scouts are all about and what this congregation is about. But the fact is, in this society, women who do exactly the same things as men do not always get the same rewards. They can work hard and make wise decisions and not receive the rewards that are promised to everybody; really, those rewards are just for some. We're doing something about that, but it is so.
The original inspiration for Mischel's studies was an Indonesian study that was interested in the realities of the children's perceptions that they had different qualities based on their ethnicities. It was all about differences in social status. And in that study in Indonesia, it turned out that one ethnic group was more willing to defer gratification than the other. That caught his eye. Whether anyone studied what the different backgrounds were, what the different training was and what the different expectations were for members of each ethnic group, I do not know.
But I know the ways that his studies have often been interpreted. Sometimes with questions, with variations and people questioning the basis of the studies, but nevertheless, on the whole, they have affirmed our very great tendency in this society to focus on the individual. There's a lot of power residing in each individual, in the decisions we each make, in whether we can exert self-control. That's undeniable. But to look only at that is to look at only one part of the picture. And what we look at is the piece we will try to fix.
I recently heard a talk by a terrific young activist named Minh Dang, who suggested that we tend to think of things like "homelessness" as the condition of an individual: "She is homeless," we say. And so we have an individual explanation for how she came to be that way. But we could talk about it, Minh Dang, instead, as the condition of a community: "Not enough affordable housing, not enough social services for people who hit rough patches." But because we look just at the individual, we focus too many of our solutions on changing the individual rather than the structures of the community. What if we thought of self-control and ability to delay gratification as something that's either supported by larger social structures, or undermined by them? Then what might we do about this problem of some people not having enough, of not having the ability to go well through life?
If we create a system in which rewards don't always come through as promised—in which, depending on your racial, gender and other characteristics, they often don't—and in which a lot of people can't afford to make the wiser choice because they don't even have their basic needs met, then an awful lot of Americans end up looking like the kids who grabbed the single marshmallow. And we can go, "tsk tsk tsk" about their foolish choices, or we can create a system that acts like that lab imagined it was acting: one that has reliable rules and a baseline of basic human needs being met for everyone.
This is the real marshmallow test. Who is the subject of this test? Not four-year-olds. Us. The ones who create the society in which we all live. We are the subjects. This experiment and the ways that we interpret it shine a light on justice, equality, and creating a society where people can thrive—or on the opposite of all those things.
Are we going to say that some people are just more inclined from an early age to give in to temptation, and that they will be less successful in life–thus letting ourselves off the hook of responsibility? Are we going to notice that some techniques work better for delaying gratification and seize on those and teach them to kids?—that's Walter Mischel's solution, and it's good, and constructive, but still fails to recognize that the individual is acting within a context that puts tremendous pressure toward certain outcomes, and puts more pressure on some people than on others.
Will we notice, we subjects of this test, that the setup has a huge impact on the outcome, and that we have set up in our economic system is an arrangement in which some people suffer much stronger pressure to go for the short-term reward: people who for whom that is the only rational choice, people who, increasingly, stay on the bottom of the heap? Will we turn that around? Will we seek to create a more equal society? Will we try to create conditions, instead, where everyone can do better by acting well, and rationally, and wisely?
Will we pass the test?
(c) 2016 Amy Zucker Morgenstern