I can’t resist temptation – why TOM UTLEY fails the ‘marshmallow’ test

Alas, I can’t resist temptation – I fail the ‘marshmallow’ test every time (but does that make me so daft?): TOM UTLEY explains why he just wants the Brexit negotiations to be finished

Until I read his obituaries this week, after his death at the age of 88, I confess that the name Walter Mischel meant nothing to me — although his nickname ‘the Marshmallow Man’ rang the faintest of bells.

It was only when I read on that it began to come back to me, and I realised that he was the American psychology professor who inspired one of the most interesting debates of our time.

For Mischel was the Vienna-born refugee from Hitler who devised the famous ‘marshmallow test’, which divided humanity into two categories: those of us who can’t resist instant rewards, and those who have the willpower to delay gratification in the expectation of gaining greater benefits later.

To remind readers with memories as rusty as mine, his experiment — launched at Stanford University, California, in the Sixties — involved putting terrible temptation in the way of 653 children aged three to five.

In front of each boy and girl his researchers placed a marshmallow, telling them that if they waited 20 minutes before eating it, they would be given an extra one. But that wouldn’t happen if they gobbled theirs up straight away.

Walter Mischel designed the ‘marshmallow test’ which was test on children and rose to prominence during the 1960s

Distract

The assistants then left the children on their own, while Professor Mischel watched them from behind a one-way mirror, studying their agonies as they battled to resist temptation.

In these more sensitive times, the experiment would probably be condemned as child cruelty. But callous soul that I am, I found the professor’s observations hilarious.

Some of the children covered their eyes so that they couldn’t see the marshmallow. Others stuck their fingers in their ears or tried to distract themselves by singing or arguing aloud the case for waiting.

Of one boy, Mischel wrote: ‘Enrico tipped his chair far back against the wall, banging it non-stop while staring up at the ceiling with a bored, resigned look, breathing hard, seemingly enjoying the large crashing sounds he was making.’

The long and the short of it was that most of the professor’s young guinea pigs couldn’t bear to wait for the full 20 minutes. A few tucked into their marshmallows immediately, while the average length of time his subjects managed to hold out was less than three minutes. Only some 30 per cent stayed the course, resisting their marshmallows until the researchers returned with a second one for each of them.

In front of each boy and girl his researchers placed a marshmallow, telling them that if they waited 20 minutes before eating it, they would be given an extra one

‘In one dramatically successful self-distraction technique,’ reported the professor, ‘after experiencing much agitation, a little girl rested her head, sat limply, relaxed herself, and proceeded to fall sound asleep.’

But what made the experiment so fascinating was a follow-up study decades later. From this, it emerged that those who had been best able to delay gratification in their childhood tended to be the most successful in life.

Those who had eaten their marshmallows immediately, on the other hand, were more prone to obesity, alcohol dependency, poor exam results, drug addiction and a host of other problems.

All I can say is that if Professor Mischel had tested me in my toddlerhood, I’m quite sure I would have been among the very first to tuck in to my marshmallow.

At every stage of my life, I’ve been a firm believer in the old saying that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. And like Oscar Wilde’s Lord Darlington, in Lady Windermere’s Fan: ‘I can resist everything except temptation.’

Mind you, I’m a little more patient than a colleague in the office, who confides that she can’t watch the first episode of a thriller series on TV without looking up the plot on the internet to discover what happens at the end. She tells me she’ll even skip to the last page of a book, after reading the first chapter, because she can’t wait to find out whodunit.

But in pretty well every other area, I’ve always wanted my gratification sooner, rather than later — even if that means piling up difficulties for the future. Internet shopping? Give me next-day delivery, every time, and to hell with the extra expense.

Prudent

Hurry back from lunch to tackle the ever-growing mountain of correspondence on my desk — or linger at the pub for just one more pint? No contest, I’m ashamed to say. The pint always wins, while the mountain grows.

It’s the same with my tax return. Should I file now — or keep it hanging over me until the last minute and beyond, at the risk of incurring a fine? Let it wait.

Or take saving for retirement. Twit that I am, in my early years of parenthood I cashed in my first two pension pots when I moved jobs. In those days, the gas bill, the mortgage and our plans for a family holiday seemed far more important than the vague possibility that I might one day grow old. It’s because of this that I appear to have doomed myself to carry on churning out these weekly meanderings until well after my 65th birthday next month.

Meanwhile, my more prudent contemporaries will be reaping the fruits of their additional voluntary contributions, with their feet up next to some pool by the Mediterranean. I just pity the poor readers. It’s not your fault.

I feel the same way about matters political. Though a passionate Brexiteer, of more than 40 years’ standing, I’ve long lost track of the befuddling array of options said to be open to us, from the Norway model to Canada Plus Plus.

All I can say is that if Professor Mischel had tested me in my toddlerhood, I’m quite sure I would have been among the very first to tuck in to my marshmallow, TOM UTLEY said. Pictured: Professor Mischel on This Morning in 2014

But I suspect I speak for countless others when I say that although I can’t be sure what kind of Brexit would be best, I’m absolutely positive that I want it now. Deal or no deal, I’m almost past caring — as long as we get out.

My heart sank along with many others when it emerged this week that our negotiators are prepared to drag out this dismal process by extending the transition period to full Brexit by as much as another year.

Reward

If so, a full five years will have passed since that glorious referendum before we finally regain the right to govern our own country. If we ever do.

Which brings me to my chief objection to the conclusions Professor Mischel drew from his experiment. Of course, those who can resist their marshmallows may argue that the extra wait for Brexit will be worthwhile if it means a better deal. But will it? If you ask me, it’s not merely weak will that makes some of us impatient to grab what we can, when we can. Trust — or our inability to trust — also comes into the equation.

After all, the professor’s young guinea pigs couldn’t be sure that he would be as good as his word, when he promised those extra marshmallows to the children who waited. Nor could they be certain that another child (a future banker, perhaps) wouldn’t eat his own marshmallow — and then steal theirs at the last minute.

In those circumstances, it may have made good sense to some of the children to take what they could, while it was still on the table. A more extensive study than Professor Mischel’s, published earlier this year, suggests that children from poorer families are less likely to delay gratification, simply because they fear that what’s on offer may be taken away.

All I know is that the more I see of the Brexit negotiators, on both sides of the table in Brussels, the less I trust them. Haven’t we every right to fear that they’re spinning this process out in the belief that the longer it takes, the better their chance of denying us Leavers the national sovereignty we were promised?

As for those 30 per cent of the professor’s subjects who delayed their gratification, isn’t it possible that some of them simply didn’t like marshmallows — just as our negotiators patently don’t like Brexit?

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