You’ve probably heard of the marshmallow test, especially if you ever took a college course in psychology or read an article in The New Yorker. It’s a famous experiment: put a marshmallow in front of a preschooler and tell them that they can either eat it now or, if they can wait 15 minutes and not eat it, they will get two marshmallows. Demonstrating the willpower to not eat the sugary treat, the test found, was a predictor of the kid’s future ability to succeed in life generally.
Let’s start from the fact that I don’t know any small children who are capable of delaying gratification — and I doubt you do, either. Moreover, we now live in a world where nobody delays gratification. The president wants to say something? He doesn’t wait to call a press conference — he tweets. You want to buy something? Whip out your phone and order it on Amazon. You want to hear music? Tell Alexa. The very concept of delaying gratification seems somewhat retro at this point.
A trio of social scientists recently restaged this experiment — and found that our assumptions about delayed gratification aren’t only inaccurate, but they’re something closer to insidious. While the original experiment worked with 90 children in a preschool at Stanford University, the revamp conducted by NYU’s Tyler Watts and UC Irvine’s Greg Duncan and Hoanan Quan used a sample of over 900 children representative of the general population — taking into account race, ethnicity, and their parents’ education levels and income.
The marshmallow test’s new results, published last month, find limited support for the idea that delayed gratification leads to great outcomes. Instead, as The Atlantic reported, a kid’s ability to wait for a second marshmallow is very closely correlated to the child’s social and economic background, which is — wait for it — a significant factor in determining a kid’s long-term success in life.
“This new paper found that among kids whose mothers had a college degree, those who waited for a second marshmallow did no better in the long run — in terms of standardized test scores and mothers’ reports of their children’s behavior — than those who dug right in,” says The Atlantic. “Similarly, among kids whose mothers did not have college degrees, those who waited did no better than those who gave in to temptation, once other factors like household income and the child’s home environment at age 3 (evaluated according to a standard research measure that notes, for instance, the number of books that researchers observed in the home and how responsive mothers were to their children in the researchers’ presence) were taken into account. For those kids, self-control alone couldn’t overcome economic and social disadvantages.”
The takeaway is that it’s not the innate ability to delay gratification but, rather, it’s the circumstances on the ground in the child’s life that dictate so many factors — including whether or not the child is capable of delaying gratification in the first place. Can the willpower of a kid who has no fear of where his or her next meal is coming from be tested against that of a child who’s very determined but has only known food insecurity? As the article states, “For them, daily life holds fewer guarantees: There might be food in the pantry today, but there might not be tomorrow, so there is a risk that comes with waiting. And even if their parents promise to buy more of a certain food, sometimes that promise gets broken out of financial necessity.”
In an era in which the top 1% of our society is becoming an American aristocracy, this new study is a real eye opener: Not only is delayed gratification a dated concept, it also highlights how the notion that everyone begins life at the same starting line — even in America’s comparative land of opportunity — is inherently problematic.
What’s more, as parents, when we teach our children the idea that success only stems from having more grit/determination/spunk/force than others, I think it actually also does something, subconsciously, to our kids’ ability to empathize and understand others’ lives and experiences. If we perpetuate the idea that disadvantages — like not being born to parents who went to college — have little to no impact on a kid’s future success in life, we are less likely to either appreciate our own privileges, and we are less likely to make sure that other people have access to those same opportunities. Don’t we want our kids to be aware of their privilege? Don’t we want them to recognize those differences and get angry about them? Don’t we want our children to be aware of the uneven playing field so that hopefully, one day, they can grow up being motivated to change it?
So, thanks some marshmallows, we have the chance to revisit our assumptions about privilege and success. We have an opportunity to think about what motivates us and what motivates others — and to try and to see things from someone else’s perspective.
And that, by the way, is an inherently Jewish value. In the Talmud, a person asks, “The ruler of my village came to me and said, ‘Kill that person, and if you don’t, I’ll kill you.’ Can I follow his order so I will be able to save myself?” And the response to him from the rabbi is this: “Allow yourself to be killed, but you may not kill another. Who says that your blood is redder than his? Perhaps his blood is redder than yours.”
In other words, who is to say that one life is more valuable than another? Every person’s life is fundamentally precious and unique. And part of our responsibility, as Jews, is to try and ensure each person has the most opportunities to allow their inherent light to shine. That’s what tikkun olam, repairing the word, means. Let’s all try harder to make sure that everyone can get to a place where they can earn two marshmallows.