The Marshmallow Test & Radical Uncertainty

Everyone knows the famous Marshmallow Test pioneered in the 60’s.

Put a marshmallow in front of a kid. Tell them they can eat it NOW or they can get 2 marshmallows if they WAIT to eat it later.

If the kid waited, it meant he/she was capable of delaying gratification.

And that has implications for life outcomes. Walter Mischel, the Stanford researcher who designed the test, tracked the kids in his experiment. What he found is that those unable to delay gratification had trouble with academic achievement and were also prone to be obese.

Many of the kids who had the most trouble delaying gratification came from economically disadvantaged homes. So researchers have started looking into links between poor kids’ environment and their inability to delay gratification.

What they recently debunked is the long-held belief that poor kids are naturally impulsive. They readjusted their perspective:

“When resources are low and scarce, the rational decision is to take the immediate benefit and to discount the future gain,” said Melissa Sturge-Apple, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester who studies child development. “When children are faced with economic uncertainty, impoverished conditions, not knowing when the next meal is, etc. — they may be better off if they take what is in front of them.”

So it turns out poor kids are carefully considering their choices and making the best decisions in the midst of radical uncertainty.

Readjusting perspective is not just helpful for researchers. It is a good exercise for everyone.

Applying Sturge-Apple’s research to our current economic situation, I would argue adults are acting just like kids in the Marshmallow Test, pouncing on immediate gains, but sacrificing long-term stability. Except the adults making these decisions are not poor, under-privileged kids. They are in charge of our money supply, our companies, and our economy. But faced with radical uncertainty, they take what they can get.

They will be the first to bemoan tax rates, funding of social programs for kids in poverty, and anything else that might make life a little easier for the most disadvantaged.

“If poor people worked harder, they could pull themselves up by their bootstraps like I did, and make something of themselves,” they will say, while devouring the marshmallow put in front of them.