Thursday, May 22, 2014

Gritty Realism

You've likely heard of the experiment where they sit a child down in front of a marshmallow, or other treat, and tell them that they can take the treat, or have that treat and another treat if they wait for the researcher to come back into the room. The upshot of this research, we've been told, is that there was a correlation between how long the children could hold out against claiming the treat (and thus, forgoing the second) and their life outcomes later in life. And so people have been trumpeting how having grit and being able to delay gratification means that one does better in life - good things come to those who wait, and all that.

And, because everything in the United States has to be somehow political, it's also been help up as "proof" that staying out of trouble with the law, working one's way through school, putting off childbearing until after firmly establishing a career and married life are paths to success. Which, really, is all well and good. The issue I have with this formulation is that people who don't follow this path are pointed to as moral reprobates, and people whose poor choices and willful lack of impulse control disqualify them from sympathy and/or the social safety net when they're down. Of course, the Internet is a big place, with lots of people on it. It's hard to talk about anything online in a large enough forum without having to deal with a jerk or ten. Or an unrepentant snarker, like myself. But once people began attempting to make causal links based on the study, I started thinking about the assumptions that underlie it.

And I had a thought. The original study is always presented with the idea that the child understands that the second treat is a given. If they simply wait long enough, they'll have two treats, rather than one. But where does that assumption come from? And so I concluded that it would be interesting to do a study where you run the trial twice. You divide the children into two groups, and the first time you run the trial, one of the groups of children never receives the promised second treat - no matter how long they wait for it. The researcher open reneges on the deal. This struck me as one of the wildly unethical (at best) sorts of experiments that used to occur to me as a psychology major back in college, so I was somewhat surprised to find that someone has actually done something along those lines.

Waiting is only the rational choice if you believe that a second marshmallow is likely to actually appear after a reasonably short delay—and that the marshmallow currently in your possession is not at risk of being taken away.
Rational snacking: Young children’s decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability
Sure enough, they found that if they made a promise to a child, and then broke it, the child waited less time before eating the first marshmallow. "We demonstrated that children’s sustained decisions to wait for a greater reward rather than quickly taking a lesser reward are strongly influenced by the reliability of the environment (in this case, the reliability of the researcher’s verbal assurances)."

One of things that I learned from working with children is that they're not as naïve (call it "innocent" if you're feeling charitable or "stupid" if you're not) as many adults want to think they are. The understand risk and reward. As the researchers point out, for a child in a situation where there is little adult supervision and other children around who are bigger than they are, waiting often risks ending up with nothing. "For a child accustomed to stolen possessions and broken promises, the only guaranteed treats are the ones you have already swallowed."
Turns out that you don't have to be old enough to swing a racquet to realize this.
It's unreasonable for us to assume that society's promises are any more ironclad than anyone else's. And in a society where news stories about how the middle class is feeling strapped and how the poor can wind up in modern-day "debtor's prisons" are never far away makes sense that some people are going to conclude that holding up their end of the bargain is never going to pay off. And this doesn't even begin to address those people who came up in situations where the promises of authority figures, well-intentioned or not, were simply tickets to disappointment.

One man's "lazy" is another man's "not being a chump." If we want more buy-in to the system, we have some work to do to make it more reliable.

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