The Stanford Marshmallow Test – Civilization and its Discontents

A great discussion this week during a training session on conflict management and optimising communication by Professor Johan Le Roux, as part of a leadership course for our School of Medicine’s Heads of Departments we initiated when I began my current job, got me thinking of Sigmund Freud’s ground-breaking book ‘Civilization and its Discontents’ which I read in my late thirties and which made a significant impression on me. As a way of making the team think of the need to understand that one’s own impulses and needs play their part of any conflict an individual is involved with, Johan described the Stanford Marshmallow experiment to the team. In this study, children under the age of ten were offered a choice of either one reward which could be eaten immediately – a marshmallow (or in some experiments a cookie or a pretzel) – or double the reward – two marshmallows – if they waited for a period of time (15 minutes) before eating them, during which time the scientist left the children alone and they were filmed. The resulting video was fascinating (and both funny and sweet) to watch, as some of the children who did not immediately eat the single marshmallow tried a number of tactics to try and last the full 15 minutes, such as putting their hands over their eyes, walking around, and picking up and putting down the marshmallow in a continuous manner. Approximately two thirds of the children ate the single marshmallow immediately or could not last the full 15 minutes, and one third managed to maintain their self-control through the full 15 minutes and received their double reward. The interesting scientific part of the experiment was that the scientists then followed up the children’s development and life outcomes over the next few decades, and found that those that waited the full fifteen minutes tended to have better exam scores, educational levels, body mass index values and other life measures indicative of ‘success’. The study was therefore about the effect of delayed gratification of needs, and the effect on future life success, and there was indeed a correlation between these two parameters.

The one measure that is not well discussed in the literature resulting from the experiment is the children’s level of happiness during their lifetime, as compared to the more formal indices of success used and most often described as outcomes of the Stanford Marshmallow test, and it was trying to find these data after Johan’s excellent leadership session that got me thinking of Freud’s book, in which he examined what he described as the fundamental tension between civilization and the individual. In Freud’s viewpoint, an individual at a deep level has an always present desire for instinctive freedom and satisfaction / gratification of their basic needs, and when the individual lives for a prolonged period where their basic needs are met, this would create a feeling of contentment in the individual, which Freud described as the ‘pleasure principle’. While there are a number of basic needs (food, shelter, security for example), to Freud the basic needs were the desire for sex, and the predisposition to violent aggression towards authority figures and sexual competitors, both of which could obstruct or deny the capacity of the individual to gratify their personal sexual needs. Obviously these basic instincts and desires of an individual described by Freud, if acted out, would be harmful to the well-being of the community in which individual lives, and therefore civilization creates laws that prohibit killing, rape and adultery for example, and punishes individuals severely for these acts in order to maintain the integrity of the community. Therefore, according to Freud, these laws would restrict the ‘pleasure’ that would result from satisfying these basic desires, and therefore he suggested that it is an inherent quality of living in a civilized environment that it creates a feeling of discontent in its citizens. Freud further suggested that such basic drives and the desire for instantaneous gratification of all needs is evident in young children, and during their development these basic needs are over time suppressed by their parents and teachers according to societal expectations. With time, as children develop into adults they develop consciences, which both regulates their activities and suppresses their basic drives as per the norm of the society in which they live. However, the ‘price’ of this suppression of desires as part of conscience development are the feeling of remorse developing in response to transgressions of the developed conscience and ‘absorbed’ societally condoned rules, and the feeling of guilt developing in response to wishful thinking about their basic needs individuals have which are counter to that of society’s rules and expectations. In some people these feelings of remorse or guilt become perpetual and damaging and lead to the development of a neurosis.

Of course some folk would say that there is clearly a feeling of contentment that comes from living in a well regulated society, but most folk if honest would also say that at some point in time in the privacy of their own reflective thoughts they have been aware of this paradox which underpins our daily life, and that at times that they felt a strong desire for some need gratification that they have had to exercise self-control to overcome. As part of my brain related research talks I give I often ask the audience if we scientists developed a device which could monitor their internal thoughts continuously and clearly (I remain hopeful from an academic perspective that this will indeed happen), would anyone volunteer for the study where we could record every single thought they have. To date I have not had one volunteer / person who says they would be happy to be involved in such a trial, which is telling in itself related to these concepts of ‘basic drives’ which folk are embarrassed and guilty about, even if they are part of each individual’s personae and mind. There is also the issue of what occurs in civilizations which have rules or which acts in a way that is damaging rather than protective of individuals that live in them. There are a number of well documented historical and current examples, where cruel and barbarous acts are committed by states and individuals in positions of authority, or indeed in the mass actions of one community towards other communities in the name of protecting their own community, or against people in their own community who are regarded as ‘outsiders’. As William James, another pioneering psychologist pointed out, when commenting on a spate of lynchings which occurred in the community in which he lived, a problem exists when the capacity for ‘murderous excitement’ in a group of individuals becomes collective, and murder is regarded as punitive or a protective societal duty. It then would paradoxically provide the greatest danger to, rather than future protection of and for, it’s own community. He used examples from his period of life (the late 1800’s/early 1900’s) such as ‘hereditary vendetta’, the custom of duelling, and religious massacres, as being examples of personal homicidal customs which had become societal and when are such are very difficult to attenuate or exterminate from the particular society which endorses these hostile acts. In a paradoxical way, these examples would allow an individual to satisfy their own basic desires in a way that is endorsed by a state, and create both a personal and societal pleasure principle environment, and it needs brave individuals and other societies or states to involve themselves in changing these type of hostile environments to one that is more / again civilized, given the primal nature and ethos of such aggressive societies and state. History is full of stories and honours those that have sacrificed themselves while acting against aggressive states in the past, though of course history is mostly written by those that ‘win’ conflicts and thus often underplay their own contribution to the societal or national violence they became involved with.

So how does knowledge of the marshmallow test results and the philosophies and principles described by psychologists like Sigmund Freud and William James (amongst many others) help us in developing leadership skills, conflict management capacity and indeed enhance one’s everyday life. For me I guess it is about being aware of the constant ‘conflict’ in oneself between the desire for instantaneous gratification of one’s needs and the desire to be an accepted member of society / the need to feel protected and safe from the gratification of other’s impulses which could be associated with a negative impact on one’s own life. Each day we live we are faced by a large number of decisions and choices that this conflict lies at the root of, and each day we probably ‘win’ some and ‘lose’ some of these decisions and choices. Of course making the ‘right’ decision is in the best post-modern sense dependent on each individual’s own personal valence of their need for self-gratification of their urges against that of the need to be a respected member of society. Therefore perhaps the level of ‘happiness’ of each person relative to each of these decisions is related to how much they value either of these ‘sides’ of the eternal conflict between passion and reason which resides in all of us. Each day we face decisions similar to that of the children and the marshmallow test, no matter what our age, and these decisions are made more complex by the current status of the community in which we live and the rules it has that are there to guide us, but which can paradoxically be primeval rather than protective of those that live in or around them. So is it one marshmallow now or two later – the choice is ours to make every day, in every situation we face where we interact with others as part of a community or society, and our level of happiness or discontent related to those choices is surely relative, but surely also important both to ourselves and those around us. Two marshmallows for me, please. Or did I mean one but say two!

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About Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

Professor Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson MBChB PhD MD - Associate Dean (Research), Faculty of Health and Science, , University of Essex, United Kingdom View all posts by Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

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