Insight From Children and Their Marshmallow
M. Bakri Musa
The behaviors of others have a profound impact on us. If those “others” are authority figures or have influence over us (leaders, ulamas, teachers, parents), the impact is magnified. It would not take much especially in the absence of dissenting views for us to internalize the “consensus.” This is true of individuals as well as society.
Consider this experiment with preschool children. They were given a marshmallow with instructions that if they were not to eat it right away, they would be rewarded with another one 15 minutes later. Imagine putting temptations in front of fearsome fours! Amazingly, about a third of the children were able to restrain themselves. The rest would succumb, with a few giving up just shy of the deadline!
The experiment demonstrated that there are individual differences to delayed gratification (or reactions to temptations) and that these could be discerned as early as the preschool age. The other conclusion was that young children did not always seek immediate gratification. If those were the only findings, the study would not have been “one of the most successful behavioral experiments.”
Fourteen years later when those kids were of college age, the lead experimenter, picking up on anecdotal accounts on those earlier participants, did a follow-up study. Those kids who succeeded in deferring eating their marshmallows did better academically and had less disciplinary problems in school. Indeed, delay in eating their marshmallow was a better predictor of SAT scores (scholastic achievement) than IQ tests or the parents’ educational level!
The other valuable insight came not from the data but from observing the children. The “impulse controlled” kids were busy distracting themselves. They sang, sat on their hands (lest they be tempted to grab the marshmallow), closed their eyes, or played with their clothes.
The psychological dynamics of the children closing their eyes were akin to Ulysses making his sailors stuff bees wax into their ears so they would not be tempted by the Sirens’ melodious songs. Those children faced as much internal tension in restraining themselves as Ulysses did in tying himself to a mast lest he too would succumb to the call of the Sirens.*
It is not enough to tell children or anyone to just restrain themselves, as in “Just Say No to Drugs!” campaign. We must also train them to distract themselves by engaging in other activities.
The original study involved preschool children from the Stanford community, meaning, above average in income, intellect, and social class. That study in turn was stimulated by an earlier Jamaican one on racial stereotypes Blacks and East Indians there had of each other. The Indians viewed Blacks as impulsive hedonists, always living for the present and never thinking of the future. The Blacks thought the Indians did not know how to live, stuffed their money under the mattress, and never enjoyed themselves. Sounds uncomfortably familiar to Malaysians! In that study the experimenter substituted chocolate bars for marshmallows.
The study revealed that stereotyping correlated more with social class and less with race, a finding that should interest Malaysians.
This ability to delay gratification has vast implications. If a culture is predisposed to immediate gratification, it would be unable to save for future needs. Economists tell us that capital formation (achieved through savings, meaning, delayed gratification) is key to economic development.
The insight from the marshmallow study explains some incomprehensible patterns of behavior. For example, those who come upon wealth through inheritance or lottery rarely keep it while those who acquire it through hard work do.
Consider those FELDA farmers who became instant millionaires when their land was acquired for the new Sepang Airport. A few years later they were back to being poor farmers. On the other hand, an entrepreneur who built a successful business keeps his wealth.
Those lucky FELDA farmers were kids who could not resist their marshmallows. They did not preoccupy or distract themselves from their treats. The entrepreneur on the other hand is still preoccupied with his business. The fact that he is making good money (meaning, well rewarded) is further gratification for him, a validation of his work and inspiring him to continue.
Consider the late Steve Jobs. When forced to resign from Apple, he could have just enjoyed the tons of money he had made. Instead he busied himself starting another enterprise. Consumed with his new company he had no time to even consider squandering his wealth. In terms of psychological dynamics, his involvement with NeXT (his new enterprise) was the equivalent of the little girl singing to distract herself from her marshmallow.
This weakness to squander easily-acquired or windfall wealth is not unique to FELDA farmers. Winners of lotteries and liability suits in America suffer the same fate; likewise, newly-rich Malays who acquire their wealth through corruption, rent-seeking activities, or political patronage. Once they are out of the lucrative loop, their wealth dissipates and they are back patronizing warong kopi instead of five-star restaurants.
Advertisers take full advantage of our propensity for immediate gratification. Consider home mortgages. Traditionally, if you have a mortgage of $150K you still owe that amount even if the house has doubled in value. That restrains your spending.
Enter the concept of home equity. With slick advertising, bankers would have you believe that you do not owe $150K rather that you have an equity, the difference between the house value and the mortgage. Now you feel rich and be inclined to spend on lavish vacations and fancy cars, forgetting that you are spending borrowed funds.
Advertisers were very effective in making homeowners eat their marshmallows right away, for the value and number of home equity loans quickly ballooned. That led to a boom not only for equity mortgage lenders but also purveyors of consumer goods and fancy vacations.
Millions of home equity loans later, and we have a housing bust. When property values dropped, those mortgages and equity loans went underwater, triggering the 2007 American financial crisis that rivaled the Great Depression.
As much of this desire for instant gratification is learned, we could just as well unlearn it. Or to put it in the context of modern neuroscience, we can carve new neural networks so the old nonproductive ones could be bypassed or “synaptically pruned” (discarded).
Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a system of charter schools in New York, is going beyond the traditional 3Rs by incorporating much of the insights from the marshmallow studies in its curriculum. To the school, character matters, and one of the fundamental character strengths which the school instills is self-control in their students, for them to learn to not devour their marshmallows right away.
We can teach that to young and old. When Muslims fast, we practice exactly that–self-restraint, not just for 15 minutes but the whole day. We do that every Ramadan. However, this important lesson in self-restraint is lost with our preoccupation on the rituals of fasting.
Back to those now poor FELDA farmers, much could have been done so they would not devour their marshmallows (spend their money) right away. One would be to have a structured distribution instead of a lump sum payment, with the principal deposited in Tabung Haji, for example. Had that been done, combined with competent and sensible financial advice, those FELDA farmers would still be enjoying their bounty today. Pension funds are not distributed as a lump sum but converted to an annuity-like distribution to last your expected lifetime. Likewise, enlightened American judges now structure the payouts to successful plaintiffs over a period of time.
As can be seen, the insights from human psychology experiments, even seemingly simple ones involving four-year olds, can have profound implications and practical applications.
Adapted from the author’s book, Liberating The Malay Mind, published by ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2013. The second edition was released in January 2016.
* In Greek mythology, the Sirens are mermaid-like seductresses with melodious voices who lured sailors to shipwreck onto a rocky coast.