Tali Sharot wrote a good book about how brain patterns influence our behavior. In it she unpacks the “marshmallow” experiment, that one from the late 80s in which kids were asked to postpone eating the one marshmallow in front of them in favor of eating two later. This was taken to show which kids had better self-control. The ones who waited did better later in life. So, the study concluded, if you have the psychological structure to resist short-term satisfaction you can improve your final position.
Sharot, however, offers another way to think about it. Based on the work of other researchers, she suggests that it is not self-control that dictates people’s choices, but our faith in the future. In one study the kids were given a cool project and bad crayons in a hard to open box. After they’d had time to figure out the crayons were substandard they were told they’d get a better box if they waited. So they did, and one group got a new, easy to open box full of crayons with sparkles. The other group was told, sorry, we don’t have anything better for you after all. Then they were given the marshmallow test.
Two guesses who waited for the second marshmallow.
Now think about people who’ve never caught a break and never seen anyone who looked like them catch a break, and tell me again about how buying that nice car instead of saving for a home shows that they “lack self-control.”
What do you think you would do?
Last June The Atlantic published an article about a study that revisited the marshmallow study. It “suggests that the capacity to hold out for a second marshmallow is shaped in large part by a child’s social and economic background—and, in turn, that that background, not the ability to delay gratification, is what’s behind kids’ long-term success.”