“I deserve it, you don’t”: Marshmallows and crime

Deferred gratification – that ability to work for something now at the expense of immediate reward in order to receive a greater reward later – has long been a social staple of the middle class. Work hard in school,earn a place in college and get a better paying job. Save for a deposit and buy a house. It is a system that plays out in innumerable ways involving early sacrifice in order to realize later gains.

Perhaps the recent economic meltdown put a dent in the system – high credit card debt and the housing bubble where too many were encouraged to take on mortgages they could not sustain. Some say that an ethos of “live now-pay later” has replaced the “work hard-wait for your just desserts”.

But deferred gratification is still very much in place in the thinking about education. And that is as it should be. Students do need to work hard in school and as importantly establish the habits of sustained effort, impulse control and persistence. And when they are supported in doing so the rewards can be enormous. But sometimes there is another and less attractive side effect. It involves the sense of entitlement. Students who begin with every advantage of background and support and who then must endure a school atmosphere of such stress and competitive pressure that they develop a sense of privileged entitlement. “I worked so hard I deserve the (name your reward) – a place at a highly competitive college, a well paying job, position, privilege. They are oblivious to the efforts of others and feel entitled to the success they have been enabled to achieve. It’s an unattractive “I deserve it, you don’t” mentality. The hard work they refer to is often the absurd levels of pressure in their ridiculously over stuffed high school years where stress is relieved in self destructive ways and the sense of entitlement is instilled with a heavy hand.

But what about the marshmallows?

In the 1960’s psychologist Walter Mischel developed The Marshmallow Test. He would give a children a single marshmallow, then leave them alone in the room after making this offer: eat it right now – or – if they waited for him to return, get two marshmallows. A recent New Yorker article Don’t! The Secret of Self Control put it this way put it:

Footage of these experiments, which were conducted over several years, is poignant, as the kids struggle to delay gratification for just a little bit longer. Some cover their eyes with their hands or turn around so that they can’t see the tray. Others start kicking the desk, or tug on their pigtails, or stroke the marshmallow as if it were a tiny stuffed animal.

As illustration, take a look at this:

But what about the crime?
A study – from the University of Wales at Cardiff published in the October issue of British Journal of Psychiatry hypothesized: “…that excessive confectionery consumption increases the likelihood of violence in adulthood.”
To test this hypothesis, the researchers used the British Cohort Study to obtain information on the frequency of sweets consumption at age 10 and on violence convictions by age 34.
They found that 69% of people convicted of violence had in fact eaten sweets nearly every day when they were younger. Only 42% of those who had been nonviolent until age 34 reported such daily consumption.
The researchers conclude:

One plausible mechanism is that persistently using confectionery to control childhood behaviour might prevent children from learning to defer gratification, in turn biasing decision processes towards more impulsive behaviour, biases that are strongly associated with delinquency. Furthermore, childhood confectionery consumption may nurture a taste that is maintained into adulthood, exposing adults to the effects of additives often found in sweetened food, the consumption of which may also contribute towards adult aggression. Moreover, although parental attitudes were associated with adult violence, the effect of diet was robust having controlled for these attitudinal variables. Irrespective of the causal mechanism, which warrants further attention, targeting resources at improving childhood diet may improve health and reduce aggression.

You can make of that what you will.

Meanwhile back to the marshmallows. Here is in a TEDtalk by Joachim de Posado that includes footage of children being faced with the cruel choice of eat now or hold back and eat more later.


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