Another Marshmallow Test

Many years ago, psychologist Walter Mischel devised a test of the ability to defer rewards. For experimental subjects, he used students at his daughter’s grade school. For rewards, he used whatever kind of treat a child might choose. Some years later, New York Times columnist David Brooks called it “the marshmallow test,:” and, like a lot of the names David Brooks thinks up, it became a widely used term. [1]

What Makes the 'Marshmallow Test' So Iconic? - Early Learning Nation

The test was simplicity itself. You can have the chosen treat now or, if you are willing to wait for a little while, you can have several treats. I don’t know what Mischel’s initial expectation was but I do know, thanks to the book he wrote about the experience, that he very quickly became interested in the strategies children used to dismiss the marshmallow from their attention for awhile.

“The Tragedy of the Commons” (Garrett Hardin this time) is another such test. If each person grazes his cows on his share of the commons (ONLY) everything will work out, but if you graze on more than your share, it will not. Others will follow your example; the commons will be grazed unsustainably, and it will crash. No one wants it to crash, but the potential for environmental collapse is remote, whereas the reward of cheating just a little is immediate. Besides, your neighbors are already doing it.

It is very hard to discipline ourselves to achieve a distant goal, particularly if it is abstract, when there are immediate rewards available for undercutting that goal. Everybody believers in “democracy.” That’s what the polls say. But that’s like believing in marshmallows or in the commons. What behaviors are inconsistent with sustaining a democracy”

The one that is facing us at the moment is the Big Lie. Many elected Republicans continue to maintain that the election of 2020 was not fair and that Joe Biden did not win it. A majority of Republican voters feel the same way. There is no standard of proof to which anyone could appeal in making the argument. But even if there were such a standard, “what actually happened” and the proof that it did really happen are both remote. They gratify some do-gooder sense that we really ought to tell the truth; ought to admit the observable realities that would enable us to live together.

Commitment to those “remote” consequences is what makes democracy possible.  “Free and fair elections” is a remote standard.  “Our guy won” is an immediate value and holding it unquestioningly–demanding not that it be proved, but that it be taken for granted–is what makes you part of your group.  It is the entry fee for many friendship groups.  It might very well be a requirement for continued attendance at your church.  It is the Marshmallow Test for Republicans.

The question it poses is clear.  Can you defer your dessert–that would be a Trump victory–until such time as he wins a majority of the votes?  If you can wait, you could get a much greater reward.  You could win democracy as a functioning system AND your preferred candidate as the leader of the executive branch.  Both.  It’s what the children got who met the challenge of the Marshmallow Test–more candy.

But–one more time–to do that, the R’s would have to put their loyalty to democracy first.  First, they would have to say, we demand free and fair elections.  Then we want our candidate to win those elections.

Over the years, democracies have not been stable.  This is why.  It puts the things people care about only in an abstract way, first.  And it puts the things people care most passionately about, second.  “Democracy,” as President Alan Shepherd said, “isn’t easy.  You got to want it bad.”  I hope very sincerely that we want it that bad.


[1] I had a friend once who, in a fit of bad temper, dismissed all the results of the studies on the grounds that some kids, surely, would not like marshmallows and the test was therefore invalid.

[2] The Marshmallow Test: Why Self-Control Is the Engine of Success

[3] Stuart Stevens, a Republican media consultant says “For the first time since 1860, a major American political party (Republicans) doesn’t believe America is a democracy.”

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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