Eat your marshmallows

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It is a symbol of delayed gratification: the Marshmallow Test.

In the 1960s, there was an experiment at Stanford University that placed a child in a room with a small reward and a simple instruction: Don’t eat the marshmallow.

If the child eats the marshmallow the story is over.  If the child waits until the adult returns, then they are rewarded with a second marshmallow.

Waves of cultural tropes — from ants and grasshoppers to the children of Greek inventors with fancy-pants wax wings — rush at us instantaneously.  The morals of the fables hit us first, and then are confirmed by the numbers: the participants were tracked down in their adult years, and those who suffered through (and won) a staring contest with a confection had better SAT scores, went to better colleges, earned more money and had happier marriages.

Altogether, they had better lives.

Or so the story goes.  But there are assumptions to this that I find problematic, not the least of which being why are scientists trying to prove what Aesop pointed out to us so long ago.

This test assumes that marshmallows are great motivators for all children.  I know that may sound an inane objection, but stay with me on this.  The extrapolation of this is that motivators are inherently extrinsic, and it is an intrinsic force of will that is a determiner of ‘success.’

The second assumption is that high SAT scores, matriculating to a first-tier university, pulling in at least $75,000 and being married all equate to a happy life.

Again, while those with the highest reported happiness may have all these factors in common, the assumption is that success is little more than checking off the right boxes in order to please the right authority figures.

Examine the test again.  Is it a predictor of success?  Or is it a predictor people who trust authority without question, and accept a predetermined set of processes?

The longitudinal aspect of the study does not track down the irascible marshmallow eaters among the great unwashed, and those great unwashed have not yet (to my knowledge) lamented their misfortunes by saying ‘It all started with that damned marshmallow.’

And here’s another thing: whether they ate their marshmallow right away, waited and ate two marshmallows right away, or waited, received a second marshmallow and kept it for another time or to share with someone (those would be the real successes, one would imagine), all the children have one thing in common.  The marshmallow.

They all got at least one marshmallow.  No child that waited was faced with a reality wherein they would receive no marshmallows due to a disaster that wiped out the year’s marshmallow crop, or hyperinflation causing all marshmallows to be too expensive.

At least one marshmallow was ALWAYS a certainty.

Was they study a failure because it didn’t teach children to be comfortable with ambiguity?  That’s a longitudinal study to pitch to Stanford in another post.  For now, the lesson is to go after that marshmallow, whatever it may be.

Those high SAT scores are wonderful, and you should be proud.  And that Ivy League sweater will stay in regular rotation in your wardrobe for years to come.  But the living, breathing organism of reality is not based on test scores.  Life is pass-fail by its very nature.  No eulogy has ever said, ‘He was 85% good, which is why his 90% death is such a tragedy.  Mathematics is such sweet sorrow.’

So grab that marshmallow with both hands.  What you do with it is your business, and you need to ask yourself what exactly it is you’ll do with it once you have it, but the point remains the same: go after that marshmallow with everything you’ve got.


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