Visions of sugarplums

Posted 12/12/18

Remember the marshmallow test? In a landmark 1960s study, Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel presented each of his three-year old participants with a marshmallow, telling them they could have a …

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Visions of sugarplums


Remember the marshmallow test?

In a landmark 1960s study, Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel presented each of his three-year old participants with a marshmallow, telling them they could have a second one if they could wait 15 minutes before eating the first. His team then followed up over the years to see how the children were getting along. The results, published in the 1990s, proposed a meaningful connection between childhood self-control and success in later life. Those who had delayed gratification in order to earn the second marshmallow were thinner, happier, more accomplished academically and less likely to abuse drugs.

Researchers at New York University and the University of California Irvine have revisited the marshmallow test and gleaned more complex insights. While Mischel focused on fewer than 90 students attending a pre-school on the Stanford campus, the NYU/UC study included more than 900 children from more diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. When the results were correlated with economic factors, they found that financial security and the educational attainment of mothers were very strong predictors of a child’s ability to delay eating the marshmallow. Jessica McCrory Callarco, an associate professor of sociology at Indiana University, explained in an article in The Atlantic that for children from poorer backgrounds, “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.” In other words, children from more affluent households are able to trust that a second treat will actually materialize. In a 2014 interview in The New York Times, Mischel noted that the chronic stress experienced by poor children activates the body chemistry associated with instant gratification.

According to the Kairos Center at Union Theological Seminary, 44.7 million Americans live below the federal poverty threshold, including one in seven women, who account for two thirds of the nation’s minimum wage earners. More than half of all American children are poor or low income and will qualify for food assistance before they turn 20. In Sullivan County, the poverty rate hovers around 17%, with women on average making close to $20,000 less per year than men.

Help is now less forthcoming. In 1979, eight out of 10 poor families with children received food assistance; in 2015, the number was just over two in 10. In 14 states, it’s fewer than one in 10. By contrast, the richest 20% of the U.S. population control 94.7% of the nation’s wealth. Globally, the richest 1% own more wealth than the bottom 99% combined.

While we like to imagine that our economic system supports genuine equality of opportunity, social research tells a different story. Childhood poverty creates damaging barriers that can have long lasting social, academic and emotional effects. Reflecting on the deeper lessons of the marshmallow test, Mischel has spoken of the remarkable strategies he saw resourceful children use to distract themselves and boost their will power, and urges us to find ways to help all children develop the same kind of imaginative resiliency. He links this to the ability to plan and formulate meaningful goals “to keep living in a way one wants to live and work... to do things that are intrinsically gratifying.”

 This resonates with one of the core principles of sustainability—that each of us should include the well-being of others in our definition of what is “intrinsically gratifying.” We can do this by exerting self control and setting goals that resist fleeting, momentary pleasure.

We need this way of thinking more than ever. The unhappy alternative is a fleeting sugar high, followed by an inevitable crash.


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