Wednesday, February 5, 2014

What marshmallows tell us about failure

     More than 40 years ago, a psychologist named Walter Mischel gave children a test that was very simple yet was to become one of the most famous experiments in psychology. 
     He offered the kids a choice: Enjoy a treat now — a cookie, a pretzel — or wait and have twice as much of the treat later. The experimenter left the child alone for 15 minutes with the goodie, often a marshmallow, and the test became commonly known as the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment.
     Mischel and his colleagues then tracked the children over years, and what they discovered was that those who waited to get double the sweets did much better in life — in school, in the workplace — than those who broke down and ate the initial treat. 
     That makes sense, when you think about it, since delaying gratification is the ladder you need to get most anyplace worth getting to. It’s what lets you study instead of going out, lets you bypass the alcohol and drugs that might feel good now but extract their penalty down the road. It’s what lets you nibble your salad every day, knowing how good it’ll feel to be thin in six months.
     The study gets mentioned from time to time. Yale Law professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld in The New York Times at the end of January mentioned it again, in a thoughtful essay wondering why some groups in America do well and some don’t. 
     It isn’t a question of race, they argue. Indian-American families earn double the national average. Asian immigrants jam prestigious schools.
     They maintain that the combination of pride and insecurity that comes with being an immigrant is key: "Nigerians make up less than 1 percent of the black population in the United States, yet in 2013 nearly one-quarter of the black students at Harvard Business School were of Nigerian ancestry."
     Coming to a new place, you have a sense of pride, even superiority, in the people you left. Being in a society ready to ignore your kind or push you aside gives you an insecurity, a drive to prove them wrong.
     To these two qualities, the authors add a third: gratification control. (Their essay is adapted from their forthcoming book, "The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.")
     Toward the end of the article, the authors turn their attention toward something that has always puzzled me: why some ethnic groups overcome the odds and bigotry arrayed against them and do incredibly well, yet large communities of African Americans remain stuck in poverty. It isn't a simple matter of encountering racism — Haitian immigrants come to Miami and do far better than blacks already there. Yes, African Americans faced or are facing cruel and complex social pathology, which the authors list, in part, as including "slavery, systematic discrimination, schools that fail to teach, employers who won't promote, single motherhood and the fact that roughly a third of young black men in this country are in jail, awaiting trial or on probation or parole."
     And then they invoked the marshmallow experiment, writing:
     "If members of a group learn not to trust the system, if they don't think people like them can really make it, they will have little incentive to engage in impulse control. Researchers at the University of Rochester recently reran the famous marshmallow test with a new spin. Children initially subjected to a broken promise — adults promised them a new art set to play with, but never delivered — almost invariably "failed" the test ... By contrast, when the adults followed through on their promise, most kids passed the test."
     That's it. That's why, even as the outward restrictions of institutional racism slowly fade in this country, mass African-American poverty persists even as other racial minority groups arrive on our shores, collect themselves and thrive. The idea — deny gratification now, work hard, study hard and your rewards will come — is a much tougher sell on the West Side of Chicago. It seems a lie because, for many, it is a lie, particularly in this economy, when working hard and getting an education is not necessarily a roadmap to a successful future, no matter your race.
     So while a Korean immigrant can come to this country, open a business and work hard, convinced the American dream is waiting, many African Americans trying to do the same face a double bind: Not only must the path to success be open to them — when so many times before it has been blocked — but they must also believe it is open to them. Otherwise, they face a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure that scientists can measure but politicians can't fix.


  1. Yep, you nailed it, Neil.
    Opportunity begets hope. Without hope, you grab whatever marshmallow is within your reach.


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