Marshmallows and Sustainability


The connection between the two words in the title is a bit tenuous, but it is real. I've just finished a great story in the New Yorker about connections between delayed gratification and performance in school and similar milieus. The marshmallow serves as the object used to measure children's degree of self-control in a psychological test. Children are shown a marshmallow and given the following instructions to choose among:

1. Eat the marshmallow right away.

2. Wait 15 minutes until the examiner returns, at which time they will be given an additional marshmallow.

3. If they can't wait that long, push a buzzer and the examiner will return and they can then eat the marshmallow, but will not get another as a reward.

The results are all over the place. The children were highly inventive in their responses.

Footage of these experiments, which were conducted over several years, is poignant, as the kids struggle to delay gratification for just a little bit longer. Some cover their eyes with their hands or turn around so that they can’t see the tray. Others start kicking the desk, or tug on their pigtails, or stroke the marshmallow as if it were a tiny stuffed animal.

Some years after the first set of experiments were performed the researcher, Dr. Walter Mischel, began to follow up on the life experience of the test subjects. Interestingly, he found that the results correlated with success in life.

Once Mischel began analyzing the results, he noticed that low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.

Mischel found that he could train the subjects to extend their self control. He is still studying this behavioral pattern some 30 years later.

Mischel is . . . preparing a large-scale study involving hundreds of schoolchildren in Philadelphia, Seattle, and New York City to see if self-control skills can be taught. Although he previously showed that children did much better on the marshmallow task after being taught a few simple “mental transformations,” such as pretending the marshmallow was a cloud, it remains unclear if these new skills persist over the long term. In other words, do the tricks work only during the experiment or do the children learn to apply them at home, when deciding between homework and television?

Recently, a related research team has begun to study the cognitive responses of the original subjects using very sophisticated methods based on fMRI. This tool illuminates the portion of the brain that is activated by the subject's activities.

Mischel and his team hope to identify crucial neural circuits that cut across a wide variety of ailments. If there is such a circuit, then the same cognitive tricks that increase delay time in a four-year-old might help adults deal with their symptoms. Mischel is particularly excited by the example of the substantial subset of people who failed the marshmallow task as four-year-olds but ended up becoming high-delaying adults. “This is the group I’m most interested in,” he says. “They have substantially improved their lives.”

But there is more than research involved. The KIPP charter schools have begun to include self control training in their character strength program. They believe that this training will lead to higher academic skills.

Imagine what might happen if they or other educational and training programs used these techniques directed toward buying behavior. Impulse purchases would likely be reduced. Consumers might take more time to ask themselves if they really need to buy whatever they were considering. More positively, they might ask themselves what concerns were they aiming to satisfy with the purchase. The inauthentic and addictive consumption behaviors that underlie unsustainability could be revealed and slowly dissipated. I believe that the deliberate strengthening of self control could become another powerful tool for transforming our consumer culture, a change that is essential to produce sustainability.