In the late 60s, early 70s Walter Mischel, a Stanford psychologist and researcher, conducted the famous marshmallow tests with children. These experiments sought to understand children’s abilities to delay gratification [Click here for Wikipedia article]. The resulting articles that came out of the experiments claimed that children who could delay gratification would be more successful in life because they could delay gratification and understand long-term gratification or reward over short-term gains of a smaller reward. Mischel followed up with these pre-school students and found that the ones who delayed gratification fared better in life. Hence, this study has been taken up by people who want to fight against a lack of willpower, temptation and promote the latest psudo-psychology craze grit [click here for TED talk on Grit](Urist, 2014).
The study even noticed how poor children weren’t able to delay gratification whereas the more well-off children could wait the 20 minutes and receive the additional marshmallows. This section of the study also helped promote some of our most harmful tropes or “poverty myths” about poor people, its their fault. If the poor parents, like poor children, could overcome their need for instant gratification and delay then they could “lift themselves up out of poverty”. These myths, like stereotypes are not harmful because they are untrue, but because they only tell a single story or a partial truth.
It is true that the children in the study did not delay gratification and wait 20 minutes to eat the marshmallow in front of them in order to get the additional marshmallows promised to them by the researchers. The researchers can prove that is exactly what happened. But is it simply a lack of willpower? This wasn’t the only test that showed these results.
“Time and again, poor children have performed significantly worse than their more fortunate counterparts. A 2011 study that looked at low-income children in Chicago noted how poor children struggled to delay gratification. A 2002 study, which examined the physical and psychological stresses that accompany poverty, did too. And so have many others.” (Ferdman, 2016)
The above quote came from a piece on The Wonk Blog which is run by The Washington Post called “The big problem with one of the most popular assumptions about the poor“. This piece examined studies that took children’s heart-rate and other bio-metrics into account as they made decisions about whether or not to take a treat now or wait for a promised increase in the treat later. The study found that children seemed to be making calculated decisions and not acting impulsively. In 2012, researchers at The University of Rochester decided to do a new marshmallow test study. This time the groups were put in reliable and unreliable situations. The reliable group was able to delay gratification and the unreliable group took what was available now because the researchers had proven themselves unreliable.
“The new marshmallow experiment doesn’t discount the old one—willpower still does breed long-term success, as far as we know. But it suggests that when children are in an environment where they trust in a clear long-term gain, they are more likely to pursue it.” (Severns, 2012)
Which brings me back to the picture. I snapped the picture at a store called I was shot in joburg in the Maboneng precinct in Johannesburg. You can read about the current program on their website, but the website doesn’t give you the full story. I got the prologue on a tour during the study abroad trip I led over winter break.
As with any good story, there needs to an exigency for the protagonist to act. In this case it was a DUI the founder received while in the Western Cape. When he went before the judge he asked if he could do the community service back in his hometown of Johannesburg instead of Cape Town. He said he would like to serve the community using his talents as a photographer. The judge agreed to this request and he went back to Johannesburg to teach children in a poor neighborhood photography. He showed up to the school and thought he would be greeted with open arms by grateful children who would flock to this white savior. (This part was told to us by the tour guide with a smile on her face because now he knows how ridiculous his original assumptions were.) However, when he got to the school to teach the children photography they had no interest.
For a couple of reasons, but mainly because they didn’t trust him that he would deliver on what he said he would. So, the effort took time. First, he played soccer with the kids and, eventually, won them over. Then he brought them disposable cameras so they could take pictures in their neighborhood. He spent time with them week after week. Then it was his last week of community service and he told the kids, “Bye!” They said, “Okay! See you next week!”
There wasn’t supposed to be a “next week”. His community service was over. These kids though had opened up to him and trusted him. He realized that he was not going to be another in a long succession of people who let them down. This is where the story on the website picks up [click here to read more].
Now, the company is building an avenue of trust, work, and long-term opportunity for success. If Bernard had only done his community service and not come back to the students after it was no longer required by the courts then he would have re-emphasized the pattern of mistrust and instability for the kids. This helps build the calculation in people to weigh what they’ve been told, what they’ve experienced, and what they need to make a calculation for what’s best for them in each moment. Hopefully, what we can learn from these newer marshmallow test studies is that people whose lives are different from our own have lived experiences that are valid and they make decisions based on their own calculus with a valid logic.