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No self-control? Perhaps you’re just rational.


Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania here in Philadelphia have taken on the famous Stanford Marshmallow experiment. You remember that sticky mess of a study: put a marshmallow in front of little kids. Tell little kids that if they can wait for “a bit”, they can have TWO marshmallows. Check back in on said kids after many years and see how well they did in school and life. Report that the kids who waited longer did much better than those kids who took the first marshmallow after waiting only a few minutes.

marshmallowsThat now-famous series of experiments has shaped our cultural thinking about the value of delayed gratification: The more patience a person has, the better off a person is. And the opposite is also common thought: The less patient a person is, the less worthy of a person she is. This moral judgment, grounded in ancient Judeo-Christian ideals (and perhaps even older traditions), is important to note. We tend to think of immediate-gratification as moral ineptitude. But what if those who choose “A bird in the hand” over “two in the bush” are the same, grit-wise, as anyone else? What if they are just making rational decisions based on their experience?

In an opinion article at the NYTIMES (You’re So Self-Controlling – NYTimes.com), author Maria Konnikova reviews new results reported by Penn neuroscientists Joseph Kable and Joseph McGuire that question the very basis of that iconic experiment.


It turns out that the kids in the original Stanford experiments weren’t told (or couldn’t understand) how long they’d have to wait, and sometimes they were told to wait by a researcher who had just established himself as unreliable. Was it really the fact that the marshmallow-takers had less self-discipline or that, after minutes passed, these kids simply didn’t trust the faulty researcher and figured that the one marshmallow was all they were getting? Was it really the fact that the marshmallow-waiters had better self-control or did they just have more faith in their adult researcher (who hadn’t proved unreliable)? In both cases, it seems like the latter options. Angela Duckworth (a MacArthur genius, also at Penn), Dan Ariely (at Duke) et al. are discovering more and more about the difference between delayed gratification and what turns out to be a rational choice to be rash.

Konnikova skips talking about the long-term aspect of the Stanford study. If it wasn’t self-discipline and grit that gave the marshmallow-waiters a leg up, what was it? When we studied this experiment in college, my thoughts were always about socio-economic class influence on the results. Coming from a low socio-economic class and broken family myself, I could sympathize with the marshmallow-takers. “Why believe anything this researcher said?” I thought. “Especially since he just made me wait at least three minutes and he lied once already! And I’m only 3 and half years old!” It’s possible that the kids who could pick out and assess the researcher’s earlier unreliability were tuned in to that kind of behavior from adults, even at the tender young age of 3 or 4. We can assume, in lives of lower economic certainty, the world of adults can seem quite untrustworthy. It is growing up with this lack of stability and the learned helplessness that comes with it that probably made the long-term difference, not some moral poverty on the part of the marshmallow-takers (or their parents!). Walter Mischel, the originator of the Stanford study, came to similar doubts after gathering the long-term results in the late ’80’s, early 90’s. (I graduated college in the early 90’s).


Hawk on a bush, eating a squirrel

… then again, I think just one of these in the bush is fine.

Skewering experiments for their influence on the cultural sentiment on a subject is undoubtedly one of my favorite pastimes, but these new looks at those original 4 year old marshmallow-takers make a whole heck of a lot more sense. Much to our surprise, humans, even the smallest ones, do tend to make rational decisions. We must dig deeper to find the place from which these decisions come. Changing your perspective can restore your faith in humankind, as well as restore the dignity for those you’ve disdained.

The point is, sometimes it’s OK to take the bird that’s in your hand and let someone else wait around for the other to alight the bush. Just audit yourself. Perhaps you’ve settled into taking your birds –and your marshmallows– too quickly, and you could stand to increase your faith that sometimes, birds do eventually come home to roost and more marshmallows do, in fact, await you.

PHOTO CREDITS: Christine Cavalier