Monday, 2 April 2012

The marshmallow index

This morning a woman of advanced years got on the bus with a daffodil tucked rakishly behind her ear.  It's a hard look to pull off and I don't know that she was entirely successful, but I completely understand her reluctance to let go of our glorious week of summer.  Who wouldn't feel defiant, nostalgic even, after a full week of going to work without any jacket, raincoat, boiler suit, wetsuit, drysuit, poncho, cagoul, or overcoat of any description? Those first warm days of the year always prompt a sort of restlessness, an intimation of limitless, yet undefined possibilities in a suddenly benign world.  As Mark Twain once said, "It's spring don't know what it is you DO want, but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!"

But today we returned to gunmetal skies and a northeast wind.  We should not be surprised--it is, after all, only the 2nd of April and people are still ski-ing in the Alps and shovelling snow in St Petersburg.  We know that April is the cruellest month, but that does not stop us wanting the impossible:  apparently for many of us a week of summer in March trumps any promise of spring.

The well-known Stanford marshmallow experiment was, if you like, an exercise in waiting for summer.  In 1972 a psychologist at Stanford conducted an experiment at the university nursery school in which children were left in an empty room for fifteen minutes with the treat of their choice (a cookie, a marshmallow or a pretzel).  The children were told they could eat the marshmallow straight away if they liked, but that if they could wait for 15 minutes without eating the marshmallow they would get a second one--just for waiting.  Personally, I think this experiment was statistically flawed--it would be much easier to wait for a pretzel than a marshmallow.  Nevertheless the  interesting thing is not that a minority gave in and ate the marshmallow immediately, or that one third deferred gratification long enough to get the second marshmallow (I would, of course, have simply mugged the researcher with the bag of marshmallows at the outset).  What was interesting about this experiment was that the ability to defer gratification turned out to be a pretty good indicator of future success.  The children who waited for their marshmallows  turned out to be 'more competent' adolescents and had higher SAT scores.  (As far as I can tell, it has not been recorded, but I think the child who waited for his pretzel turned out to be Bill Gates).

I suspect that we do not need economic analysts to explain why we are in our current economic crisis, or social commentators to explain the collapse of traditional communities and values:  it is all a simple case of too many of us wanting our marshmallows right now.

Thinking about it I realise I may have been wrong and the daffodil lady on the bus might have been simply deferring gratification.  She may not have been mourning the passing of our premature summer, but celebrating the promise of spring...not today, or even tomorrow, but maybe next week.  In the meantime, the forecast is for snow--she should have all the marshmallows she can eat.

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