Monday, October 15, 2007

Oldie but goodie?

Since I can't seem to come up with much in the way of new posts, I thought I would recycle something I wrote over a decade ago...even though it's not exactly true...

E.Q., I.Q., or G.Q.?
The Great Marshmallow Experiment

Can the way a little kid responds to marshmallows predict his future success?

My mother was the first to tell me about an experiment that has recently gained quite a bit of media exposure. She had read about it in an article about "emotional I.Q.". She explained: "The experiment started in the 60's. They took a bunch of preschool kids and handed each one a marshmallow. The researcher said that if the kid would wait 20 minutes--while the researcher left the room--to eat the marshmallow, then he would get two marshmallows. The interesting thing is that they followed up on these kids and found out that the ones who waited turned out to be much better able to delay gratification and achieve their goals as teenagers and young adults."

Right away I knew I wanted to conduct a similar experiment of my own. I began running the same test on every little kid I knew...but I immediately hit some unexpected snags.

"I don't like marshmallows. They're yucky," one tot informed me, handing it back to me with a disgusted look on his face. This posed a scientific dilemma: would the results be skewed if I offered him an alternative? Would I have to offer everyone else the exact same thing?

"My mother won't let me eat sweets before lunch," another objected. "I could eat an apple, maybe--or a slice of toast," the child offered helpfully.

The next child informed me that marshmallows contained refined sugars and were thus taboo.

One little tyke grew quite alarmed when I handed him the marshmallow. "But it's not mealtime!" he gasped. "My parents insist that I eat three meals a day, just like the rest of the world. And snacking is not in the schedule." He seemed rather surprised that I did not know this.

Yet another said she was allergic to some ingredient in store-bought marshmallows and could eat only those that were homemade.

The son of a La Leche League Leader studied the marshmallow carefully, with a puzzled look on his face, before offering a polite, "No, thank you." He explained, "This doesn't look like something from the Whole Foods cookbook."

I was about to scrap the experiment when I finally found a child who would agree to eat a marshmallow. "But I don't want two of them," she said. "That would be greedy. Maybe you could give my other marshmallow to someone else." Muttering about "die Jugend von heute" under my breath (and sounding rather like my stodgy old college German professor) I set off in search of more young subjects.

Little Buford seemed promising. He liked marshmallows. In fact, he informed me that he really, really liked them, but could never seem to get enough of them. His eyes lit up as I explained the part about waiting 20 minutes and getting two marshmallows. "I get it! I get it!" he almost shouted with enthusiasm. He spent the entire 20 minutes with a smile on his face, gazing at the marshmallow on the table in front of him and licking his lips in happy anticipation. I expected him to gobble those marshmallows when I handed him the second one, but he shocked me with his response.

"Now," he announced in a firm but happy voice, "I will wait 20 more minutes so I will get another marshmallow. Then I will wait 20 more minutes and get four marshmallows."

"Um, Buford," I protested weakly, "the deal was that you would wait 20 minutes and I'd give you another marshmallow. I gave it to you. You did great. Now I think you should go home."

"No," he said with a smile. "I've decided to wait here 'til tomorrow so I can have the whole bag all to myself."

"I'm sorry, Buford, but it doesn't work that way."

"Why not?"

Good question. "Um...I'm sure your Mom will start missing you and want you to come home."

"No, she won't."

I was beginning to believe him.

Little Buford crossed his arms over his chest, leaned back in his chair, and started humming tunelessly to himself, no doubt daydreaming about an entire bag of marshmallows. "This is great," he said. "A whole bag of marshmallows! And I won't have to share!"

"Buford," I said firmly in my best no-nonsense voice. "I am not going to give you a whole bag of marshmallows. You really need to go home now."

Buford answered just as firmly, "Yes, you will. It's only fair. I'll wait right here until tomorrow and you'll give me the whole bag of marshmallows."

I decided that he would soon tire of his game, so I left the room. Two hours later, he hadn't moved. The two marshmallows were still untouched in front of him. I was growing alarmed and called his mother. She sighed when I described the situation to her. "We have two choices," she said. "Either he sits there until tomorrow and you give him the bag of marshmallows--or my husband and I come over and physically remove him." I opted for the latter. It was not a pretty sight. Finally I concluded my experiment. Of course I'll have to wait twenty or thirty years before all the results are in, but I have some predictions.

The anti-marshmallow child will convert once he tastes marshmallows floating in hot chocolate.

The child whose mother restricted sweets to afternoons will suffer great pangs of guilt when he unthinkingly eats a donut at work one morning.

The anti-refined-sugar child will hit the lecture circuit, preaching out against the evils of all sweeteners but honey.

The scheduled child will never quite recover from the shocking discovery that the rest of the world does not all eat three meals a day. He will propose the theory that Nazism stemmed from the German traditions of a "second breakfast" and afternoon cake and coffee...and that high tea brought about the decline of the British empire.

The allergic child will unintentionally distress all her well-meaning friends who won't invite her to dinner parties for fear of accidentally sending her into anaphylactic shock.

The son of the La Leche League leader will seek out and marry a young woman whose mother also used the Whole Foods cookbook. Together they will open a combination health food store/lactation clinic/whole foods restaurant.

The non-greedy child will either join the Peace Corps or become a devoted wife and mother who always shares her dessert.

And Buford? I have no doubt that he will be wildly successful someday--and extremely, extremely rich. His greed is matched only by his patient persistence...or stubbornness, whichever the case may be...

copyright 1996


  1. You're right, this is a goodie. The "I was beginning to believe him" line made me laugh out loud. :^)

  2. Rebecca, I think only someone who has seen the severe effects of having misguided, albeit genuine, beliefs could ever see the cause-and-effect you have so eloquently articulated here. Now that I'm beginning to put some of that legalism behind me (what a long, slow road THAT is!), I can see some of these futures as well. This post makes me think most about how the choices I make today will affect my own children for the rest of their lives. What an awesome responsibility!

  3. I'm curious. Why has your god never once answered an amputee's prayer to re-grow a lost limb. I understand that christians typically explain that answers to prayers are sometimes beyond human understanding, and sometimes simply "no", but in all of history your god has never once responded to an amputee's prayer with "yes,as the omnipotent creator of all that is, i'll replace that lost limb for you."

    Suspicious don't you think?

    Or do you just not think about this issue because it might lead to uncomfortable questions? Or, in your case, maybe it wouldn't.

    But for the record, zeus, or jupiter, or god, or the messiah, or whatever you call him these days is a fairy tale character you believe in. And beliefs are not facts.

    If your beliefs comfort you and allow you to make meaning out of the events of your life, i'm not about to waste my time arguing with you.

    But when i come across a site like yours, i like to provide the information you don't get when you gather with others who share your socially sanctioned delusions (i.e. fellow church-goers.)That way you can't say you weren't exposed to the facts.

    jesus is your imaginary friend: an itinerant teacher who, if he even existed, got the death penalty 2000 years ago for attempting to undermine the status quo.(an activity I whole-heartedly endorse, incidentally.) 2000 years from now will people be wearing little electric chairs around their necks to signify the divinity of the late Tookie Williams? (A gang member whose activities I whole-heartedly repudiate.) I wonder what Tookie will be saving people from.

    Your holy book is a compilation of myths, morality tales and dicta from the axial age. Its purpose is to explain a frighteningly unpredictable world, enforce social norms, control women, propagandize conquered peoples, reinforce male prerogative, and, contrary to jesus, uphold the status quo. It's a great read, of course, but so is Shakespeare. Who actually writes better than God and offers superior moral insight. Go figure.

    It must be nice that your 2000 year old book obviates the need for genuine thought by telling you the answers you need to arrive at while allowing you the pretense of ratiocination. But knowing the answers that tradition and peer pressure compel you to reach is a cheap form of thinking.

    Your highly activated frontal lobes (many of the so-called saints of yesteryear would today be treated for the severe frontal-lobe epilepsy they mistook as god-induced ecstasy) must produce wonderful feelings of certainty, bliss,and connection when you fellowship with your co-religionists or read the words of ancient propagandists. But feelings are not facts.

    So now you know. Or could know. But the actual conditions of your life must require self-deception and fantasy; so don't let facts interfere with your superstitions. Just remember that had the 2005 tsunami occurred in Athens in 400 BCE, Poseidon would be getting all the blame. But, maybe, just, maybe, the shifting of tectonic plates or an underwater volcanic eruption were the actual cause.

  4. Thank you for your comment, Chris. Of course, I'm chuckling over what it was in my post about "The Great Marshmallow Experiment" that set you off.

    And, of course, I'm also very familiar with the rhetoric you lifted almost verbatim from poorly done YouTube videos and an assortment of ill-researched websites.

    Thanks for sharing. I hope it made you feel better. Perhaps it you had read more of my posts and actually were willing to engage directly with ideas I've expressed, I would be more willing to return the favor.

    At any rate, this is as much attention as I'm willing to give to random drive-by diatribes.

  5. I rarely watch YouTube (and then it's usually classical piano, which involves no spoken language) and haven't seen any websites containing any of the language I used, so I'm not sure what you're talking about there. If that's an attempt at a put-down, well, your put-downs need work.

    Just as I don't have to do any research to know whether it's clear or cloudy outside, I don't have to do any research to know there's no god;it's obvious. What needs to be researched is the reason why adults capable of higher reasoning persist in believing that fairy tales are true. And in the case of female believers, why they willingly adhere to a belief system that sees them as inferior. Although I view women who believe in Jesus as inferior (cf. Ann Coulter), so maybe bible believin' women are onto something there, after all.

    I'm not going to engage in the ideas you present here for the same reason I wouldn't engage a 5 year old who blogs about the tooth fairy's latest visit to her house. Why point out that if she hadn't told her parents her tooth had fallen out she wouldn't have gotten a dollar under her pillow? Let her have her harmless fantasy; she's five.

    You're not 5. For you to promote infantile fantasies is harmful indeed.

    Rather than praying(studies show prayer is useless, although I guess it gives some people a rush), studying nonsense (the bible), or giving money to a pastor so that he can build another mansion or pay off another hooker, you could be organizing underpaid workers, exhorting your congressional reps to write better legislation,reading books on tax reform, or doing something that actually benefits our very troubled world.

    Energy spent doing one thing cannot be spent doing something else. Time spent reading the bible is time you don't spend lobbying for SCHIP. Or immigration reform. Or creating beautiful art. The fact that you waste your time in the way that you do diminishes our world. Your acts are not neutral.

    I wanted to put a statement on your page (I hardly felt it was a diatribe) so that someone would see an opposing viewpoint and think instead of believe. I didn't really care where I put it, marshmallows, god, whatever, what mattered was that someone might see it.

    I'm not going to post again, but I did want to reply. And note that you chose to attack me rather than to answer my question about god's refusal to grant the prayers of amputees. I understand, though, and I forgive you. Attack was your only option.


  6. There was no attempt at a put-down. It's just that I have seen YouTube videos and read websites that your comments echoed.

    I'm sorry if that seemed like an attack to you.

    I can also fully understand a materialistic worldview that is based only on what is physically discernible, measurable, and able to be proven scientifically. But I believe there is a far greater mystery to life. For example, I have yet to hear a good scientific explanation or proof for the mystery of love...or altruistic sacrifice. I know that there are many who believe that love does not exist. Call me deluded, but I believe it does.

    I am also not so arrogant as to think that I have the mysteries of the universe figured out, or that my intellectual abilities are so vast as to be able to comprehend and explain human origins. Even the most brilliant scientists are not so arrogant as to assume that there are not still mysteries beyond them.

    But, since you see me as so obviously beneath you (to quote "...I view women who believe in Jesus as inferior...") I feel I've already written far too much.

    To quote you yet again, "Attack was your only option."

  7. The following has absolutely nothing to do with marshmallows, but Internet Monk had an interesting post on atheism:

    It just seemed somewhat appropriate to post the link right now.