Cookie monster.

One of the things that vex me about people is their tendency to believe that their experience is universal.

There’s a standard experiment format used to study delayed gratification in children:

The Stanford marshmallow experiment was a series of studies on delayed gratification in the late 1960s and early 1970s led by psychologist Walter Mischel, then a professor at Stanford University. In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately or two small rewards (i.e., a larger later reward) if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned. (The reward was sometimes a marshmallow, but often a cookie or a pretzel.) In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index (BMI), and other life measures.

Every time I see this study referred anywhere as some kind of eye-opening revelation about the human condition, I die a little inside. I’m not saying it’s nonsense; however, in my experience, it would have come up with the right answers for the wrong reasons.

Once upon a time, I was a wee girl living at the edges of a bad neighbourhood, and in that bad neighbourhood I found my friends. Between the ages of 3 and 11, my two best friends (let’s call them X and Y) and I could only be separated by using force. We stuck together like glue in and out of school. We never got put through the experiment, but I can say with 100% certainty how it would have gone down:

  • X would have eaten the first cookie. Her extended family included 2 older brothers and 2 older male cousins. In her house, if you didn’t shove something in your mouth as soon as you got it, someone else was going to swipe it, and if you complained about it you got hit. She wouldn’t have waited because she had very good reasons not to trust the world.
  • Y would have eaten the first cookie. His parents both worked long hours for very little money. He often had to wait longer than his stomach liked for his next meal, and that meal hardly ever included a dessert of any sort.
  • I would not have eaten the first cookie. I would have waited for the two cookies and given them to X & Y. I wasn’t an unusually nice child; I just didn’t care much for sweets, or food in general, and I really liked my friends. I had a god-awful childhood but lack of food wasn’t a problem. When you’ve got more than you want and your best friends are going without, it doesn’t even feel like sharing.

On paper, we would have supported the conclusions of the experiment. X got held back in school twice until she dropped out at 16 without any qualifications. Y finished school as soon as possible with unremarkable results, and then got the first job he could find. I, on the contrary, not only aced high school, but carried on until I collected enough qualifications that I shall never want for wallpaper, and I was top of my class all the way through. Lo and behold, delayed gratification = more betterer children!

…or not. The real reason X failed dramatically in school was that her family was semi-literate and actively sabotaged her studies. She wasn’t given the time or the quiet to do her homework. Also, it was virtually impossible for her to lay her hands on a book. There were none in her house, and we didn’t have a public library. The real reason Y didn’t go to high school is that he needed to earn money. He wasn’t lazy or stupid; he was poor.

Both of them have made up for their lack of formal schooling. They have both excelled in their fields by the simple means of being incredibly intelligent, self-motivated, and good with people. Over the years, they both climbed their way to senior positions within their companies, which required them to take and pass a variety of courses. Both of them now are trainers in their fields. I, on the the other hand, ran off with the circus in my 30s and currently wash dogs’ arses for a living, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The real reason I did so spectacularly well in school had nothing to do with my ability to delay gratification. When I was very young my family pushed me to achieve. I simply didn’t have the option not to do well. Then at 11 or so I realised that the Millennium Falcon just wasn’t going to come and take me away; that I needed to leave home as soon as physically possible, even if that involved hopping off the balcony; and that my only chance of achieving financial independence in my teens was to start getting scholarships. Well, it was that or giving blow-jobs to sailors*; I kept that as plan Z.

The truth of the matter, as it applied to us three, is that we all did as well as we possibly could under the circumstances. Our circumstances, however, were vastly different, and the differences got bigger over the years. Early life choices, not of our making, influenced our options in later life. Our playing field was far from level. Our final results – the shape our achievements took, not how much we achieved – are a direct reflection of the options we had.

Maybe I’m being unfair to the Stanford experiment people. Other experiments were conducted around the first one, indicating that children’s trust in the testers was also a factor, so the researchers weren’t entirely clueless as to the importance of other factors. However, I do wonder whether any of the testers every bothered to ask the children whether they were allowed sweets at home, whether they had to fight to get or keep their shares, whether they were hungry. If those questions weren’t asked, or if the possibly implications of the answers were ignored… well, then I call shenanigans.


(*I jest. Thieving and smuggling always seemed more likely prospects.)


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