Saturday, January 30, 2021

#30 / The Marshmallow Test


The "Marshmallow Test," also known as the "Stanford Marshmallow Experiment," was a 1972 study on delayed gratification led by psychologist Walter Mischel, a professor at Stanford University. 

In this study, a child was offered a choice between one small but immediate reward, or two small rewards if they waited for a period of time. During this time, the researcher left the room for about 15 minutes and then returned. The reward was either a marshmallow or pretzel stick, depending on the child's preference. In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index (BMI), and other life measures. A replication attempt with a sample from a more diverse population, over ten times larger than the original study, showed only half the effect of the original study. The replication suggested that economic background, rather than willpower, explained the other half.

A recent article in The Guardian references the Marshmallow Test as it compares how the United States and the U.K. did, compared to other countries, in responding to the coronavirus crisis. Prior to the crisis itself, it was thought that these two countries were the best prepared countries in the world to handle an outbreak of infectious disease: 

In October 2019, in those halcyon pre-Covid-19 days, a chart was published that ranked 195 countries according to their capacity to deal with outbreaks of infectious disease. Drawn up by the Washington DC-based Nuclear Threat Initiative and the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Baltimore, Maryland, the 2019 Global Health Security Index (GHSI) placed the US and UK first and second, respectively. South Korea came ninth, New Zealand 35th and China 51st, while a number of African countries brought up the rear.
In fact, countries like Vietnam, Senegal, China, and New Zealand did much better than either the United States or Great Britain in responding to the pandemic and containing it. And why was that? Well, we had President Trump in charge of everything, of course, and Britain had Boris Johnson, and The Guardian suggests that the way they looked at the challenge (sort of like in the "Marshmallow Test") was the main difference: 

One thing the leaders of all these countries have in common [the countries that were successful in responding to the crisis] is that they know an outbreak can grow exponentially, and that their best hope of containing Covid-19 was therefore to act fast and in a coordinated, data-driven manner. In a sense, each government sacrificed its population’s present for its future, but only because it understood that the sooner the sacrifice was made, the smaller it would be.
In contrast, the wealthy countries that topped the GHSI sacrificed their future for their present, arguing as US president Donald Trump did that the cure must not be worse than the disease, or in UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s immortal phrase, that “Our country is a freedom-loving country” – to which the only possible response is this line from Albert Camus’ The Plague: “They fancied themselves free, and no one will ever be free so long as there are pestilences.”

Delayed gratification is associated - and quite properly - with better life outcomes. A nation (or a world) that decides that the best path is to "sacrifice the future for the present" will likely not have much of a future - or even any future at all. 

When you next read your next article about global warming, remember that!

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1 comment:

  1. Provocative approach - so glad you shared the Guardian perspective. And it gave me the happy chance to remember running "marshmallow" experiments for Michel when I was a Stanford psych undergrad. Thanks.


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