The Marshmallow Test's Squishy Conclusions About Success and Poverty

The Marshmallow Experiment was a study performed by Stanford professor Walter Mischel in the late 60's and early 70's.  In the study children were given a single marshmallow, which they could eat right away, but they were also told, that if they are able to wait for a predetermined amount of time, they would be given two marshmallows.  

A follow up study on the children in the 1990's seemed to show that those who were able to delay gratification went on to perform better in school, and had greater overall economic success in life. These findings were popularized in a book by Mischel, titled "The Marshmallow Test: Why Self Control is the Engine of Success.These days you can find a tons of videos of people performing the Marshmallow test on kids across Youtube The experiment has also been cited by numerous self help gurus. 

However, a new study performed by NYU’s Tyler Watts and UC Irvine’s Greg Duncan and Hoanan Quan suggests those findings are - well - a bit squishy.  

On June 1, 2018 article in The Atlantic reported that this new study found only limited support for the idea that delayed gratification lead to better outcomes. Instead, it suggested that the capacity to hold out for the second marshmallow was mostly shaped by a child’s social and economic background—and that that background is actually what determined a child’s long-term success.  Here's how I understand these findings. 

  • Children from a more economically privileged background perceived their situation from a viewpoint of abundance "I get access to stuff all of the time. I've been offered the choice between one or two marshmallows, and two is better than one - so I'll wait."  
  • Children from an economically underprivileged background operate from a viewpoint of scarcity and uncertainty. "Someone just offered me a marshmallow now, or two if I can wait. I can never be certain of the future. I want a marshmallow. One real marshmallow is better than the promise of two."

The message that Willpower = Success In Life, has been accepted as common wisdom in our culture.  I even bought into the theory myself for a while myself.  It's easy, because the conclusions present us with a way to take control of our future (and who doesn't want to do that?).  But that may actually be an empty promise. This is not to say that will power isn't an important life skill. But in reality there are so many other factors that play in to how well we do in life. 

We have a tendency - especially in this country,  to assume that a person's success is determined by willpower alone.  There is also a myth, touted especially in conservative circles, that poor people don't get ahead because they waste their money on drugs and alcohol, or nails, large screen TV.s and fancy clothes. I cite Senator Chuck Grassley's comment in 2017, about why poor people don't invest,

"I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing, as opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it's on booze or women or movies."

It reminds me of a SNL skit with Steve Martin, where a husband and wife are distressed over their bills and mounting debt. Just then a man walks in with a solution, a program to get out of debt called "Don't buy things you can't afford. I love Steve Martin, but I hated the skit.

It, like the Marshmallow Experiment, plays right into conservative stereotypes about poverty.  Stereotypes like the woman wearing furs and paying for her groceries with food stamps, or the man begging for cash on the corner who drives away in a Rolls Royce. Everyone knows someone whose seen someone like this - or so it would seem. 

The fact is, when you're poor there are a lot of hurdles you have to jump just to live at a state of normalcy.  For instance, it is generally recommended that you should not spend more than 30% of your income on rent/housing.  The people for whom this is possible have what is called "disposable income" - this allows them to do things like have a savings account, and pay off emergency expenses when they occur, instead of going into debt.  It allows them to plan for the future.  

For people whose housing expenses are greater, say over 50 percent of their monthly income, savings may be nearly impossible.  A $400 emergency car repair means completely different things to these two groups of people. And many people don't seem to get that.  It is especially concerning for Christians who don't get it.  

Self control is a valuable character trait, but it alone is not enough for a person to lift themselves out of poverty.  Society has a responsibility to properly value the time people put into the work they do.  If you don't make enough money to weather life's financial crises no amount of willpower will can keep you from the debt spiral. Books like Elizabeth Warren's "The Two Income Trap," and Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickeled and Dimed," have been helpful in giving me a broader more objective understanding of poverty and my own financial struggles. 

Poverty is a moral issue, not a moral failing, but a matter of justice. 

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