Have We Failed the Marshmallow Test?

Are you familiar with the marshmallow test? This is a 1972 study by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel. Young children were offered an immediate small reward (1 marshmallow or pretzel stick) or a reward of two if they could wait a few minutes. After establishing trust with the children that the researcher would honor their offer, the kids were left alone in a room for a few minutes with the one reward in front of them. He then followed up comparing those that waited for the bigger reward and those that he concluded couldn’t wait. The test has been repeated multiple times with varying results.

Follow-up showed correlation between those that were able to “delay gratification” with higher SAT scores, educational achievement, health, and other measures of “success.” As can be expected with such grand attempts at correlation there are considerable other factors and variables to consider, so conclusions should hardly be considered conclusive.

It does get me thinking about how this connects to what I recently heard William Barber II talking about in an interview. Barber contends that we must, and have as of yet failed to, acknowledge and address these five interlocking significant challenges as a society:

  • Poverty,
  • Systemic racism,
  • Ecological devastation and denial of healthcare,
  • War economy, and
  • False, distorted narrative of religious nationalism.

Do we have the patience to properly deal with such interconnected systemic issues? Doing so, requires more than what we have typically done depending on politics of the time: government assistance programs to tax cuts and voodoo hopes of a trickle-down economy. Despite it all, these underlying social issues have largely increased, not decreased. I will share my bias. One appears to at least attempt to make the lives of all citizens more livable while the other appears to enrich some and physically and emotionally endanger the rest.

Until we acknowledge and address underlying inequities Jim Wallis calls our original sin of a society built by slave labor on land acquired through genocide of indigenous people (and I’ll add genocide of ecosystems) maybe the best we can hope for is just making lives at more than abject struggle. Have we failed the marshmallow test as a society?

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