The Dark Side of the Marshmallow Experiment
What does it say about a child when they feel hungry yet are still capable of maintaining the self-control necessary NOT to eat the single marshmallow they are offered, preferring instead to wait fifteen whole minutes to get two marshmallows? Most people agree that it says they will be successful later on because they can, from an early age, calculate short versus long-term benefits and plan for the future. Such planning is an essential life-skill because, obviously:
- Short-term benefits and long-term benefits are never the same thing in the final term, i.e by the end of a person’s life, and
- Long-term benefits are always better than short-term benefits.
When people ask “where do you see yourself in 10, 15, 20 years?”, they are asking you about your long-term plans, not your final term ones. If they ask you this when you’re say… 78.3 years old, which is the average age of death from old age in Canada, the only appropriate answers are either:
- Improbably alive and still being awesome,
- Dead, or
- Some sassy and wry variant of the above, preferably delivered in a deadpan voice.
But odds are that no one is asking you what you want to be when you grow up when you’re already super old, and I mean “my oldest t-shirt is older than your parents” old. Nope! No one is going around retirement and nursing homes asking the ancient elderly what their life goals are because they assume that either they were already reached or it’s too damn late anyways.
And that’s what I want to talk about.
When it’s too damn late and you still don’t have what you want because you were too busy patiently waiting for the right moment for someone else to decide to give it to you.
“I’m independent and don’t need no man/woman/society/cool kids to provide for me”, you might be saying. And, indeed, you’d be dead wrong!
Because you AREN’T providing for yourself. Odds are you’re sitting in front of that damn marshmallow and waiting those interminable fifteen minutes or fifteen years for some “wise grown-up(s)” to come back and tell you “Your waiting is over! Rejoice for ’tis time to EAT ALL THE MARSHMALLOWS!”
If you are doing this, I want to let you know right now – because I care – that you are getting royally screwed over.
The kids in that lab experiment all got their marshmallow(s) in the end because the Marshmallow Test took place in a structured environment. Life is NOT a structured environment. Life is full of dumb MOFOs who will EAT your second marshmallow while the first one is turning hard and stale and tasteless on the table for fifteen years. Life is full of people with better things to do than reward you for your self-restrain and who will completely forget or not care that they promised you a marshmallow ages ago. Maybe they’d lied from the start because they’re mean. Maybe they were well-intentioned but tripped over thin air, hit their head on the floor and bled to death before they could come fetch you. Regardless, if (not when) someone eventually wanders back into the room one day and notices that you’re still there, sitting patiently, resisting hunger, don’t be surprised if they start laughing at your dumb butt.
More likely, however, is that they will get pissed off at you for sitting in the room that they put you in when they told you to “wait until we come get you (or you die, whichever comes first)” and accuse you of wasting space and doing nothing… Like you were asked to do. Like you were promised up down and sideways by multiple people would bring you rewards of praise and sugary
You’ll ask these metaphorical researchers for your marshmallow and they will tell you that you were supposed to come out of the room after fifteen minutes to get it. They’ll blame you for your failure to succeed even though:
- No one ever told you that you needed to come out of the room,
- There is no clock in the room and you don’t have a watch, and
- The rules you were given when you were led into the room fifteen years ago explicitly stated that leaving the room without permission to fulfill yourself would give you an automatic fail.
Persons and individuals, this is the little-known dark side of the Marshmallow Experiment. It tells you which kids will wait for ages when promised success, results, fulfillment, more but only later. Then, it equates patience and abnegation with success.
Patience is a virtue, I will agree, and so is abnegation but both are virtues that require skill to wield. This skill, which most people don’t possess as children (or as adults, if we’re being honest), is the ability to tell when the person telling you to wait and deny your urges is screwing you over or not. It is the ability to realize when you should wait a little longer and when you’d be better off eating the damn marshmallow to have the energy required to wander out of the room, find the kitchen, pull out the sugar and experiment until you figure out how to make your own supply of sugary fluff.
I’m not saying you should be mistrustful of everyone who gives you advice or a promise or even that you should strive to do everything alone. I am saying that you should stop resisting your hunger. If you are starving for fulfillment, take what little of it others give you then go out and make more.
Can you imagine how baffled (yet secretly delighted!) the researchers would have been if a child, after getting sick of waiting, had had the bright idea of leaving the room, crossing the street (after looking both ways!) and pulling out their pocket change to buy a jumbo sized bag of marshmallows from the convenience store across the way? The child could then return to the facility and victoriously munch on all the marshmallows their tiny little bodies could stand, knowing that they have enough excess they don’t need to ration even if they decide to share with the silly grown-ups.
This is, in my opinion, a much more accurate representation of life than the standard “Marshmallow Test” could ever hope to be. This is because the scenario described above recognizes that short-term benefits are often identical or similar to final term benefits, which are usually intangible results such as satisfaction, happiness, pride or fulfillment. Furthermore, the aforementioned scenario recognizes that there are no guarantees in life. It’s all well and good to plan for your future but you must remember to remain flexible enough to adapt your plans in response to unexpected events. When one is taking the Marshmallow Test, one naturally chooses to wait a while, assuming that the researchers will return eventually but what if they don’t? What is the back-up plan?
Being aware of how unpredictable life can be, I believe it is necessary to adapt the Marshmallow Test so that it too takes this unpredictability into account. I don’t think the original version of the test is wrong or without value – far from it! – but I do think that it is incomplete.
Then and only then would I lead the kids to the examination room next door. I’d sit them down, promising to give them TWO cookies if they wait 20 minutes, to give them one cookie now if they can’t wait and to give them no cookies at all if they leave the room during the test. Then, I’d leave and never come back.
The Marshmallow Test would have you believe that the children who will grow up to be the most successful will be those who will wait the full fifteen minutes… and then just keep on waiting (until they die).
However, my hypothesis is that the children who wait fifteen minutes (or until they die) are the ones who will grow up to be the kind of adult who reads a “This Is How You Keep An Idiot Occupied For Hours” book cover to cover. Twice. Thankfully, most people don’t fail at life quite this badly.
Instead, you get the majority of the population. They are ones who settle for second best then convince themselves that they are content all the while openly scorning and secretly despising people who are happier than them. These settlers were the children who waited fifteen minutes, then another fifteen just in case before finally breaking down and eating the cookie, thinking to themselves “I’m hungry and can’t wait anymore and, really, one is better than none even if it’s not quite as good as two!”
The people who settle for second best are the adults who are learning, learned or will learn how to work “the system” to their advantage. But do you know who will be designing the Matrix-like system in which so many people are content to while away their lives? Do you know who will be the innovators, the world-changers, the creative greats?
The children who will become the most remarkable adults will be the ones who will wait patiently, hem and haw for a while over the tough decision they need to make before eventually deciding to take the risk of getting in trouble by going into the kitchen and making their own damn cookies. Most kids will know that they’re not supposed to use the oven without supervision, will realize that they don’t know how to bake, will be aware that they might be terrible at baking and end up getting no cookies at all AND a time-out for making a mess. However, I think that the kids most likely to become undeniably successful adults will be the ones who decide “I don’t care! I want cookies so I’m going to try anyways!”
And when a researcher comes into the room to tell them “Congrats, kid! You figured it out!” and help them bake cookies, they will be the children who will get to eat four cookies, not one and not even the “best possible result” of two. They will become the adults who will know that you should never let anyone else tell you to wait when you’re hungry. If they won’t feed you, go (learn to) feed yourself.
Persons and individuals, I am admitting here and now with great shame that I would have passed the Marshmallow Test with flying colours. In fact, I did pass the Marshmallow Test with flying colours. Again, and again and again. Only, I wasn’t promised marshmallows. I was promised happiness, success, fulfillment and all the “great things” I’d do later.
This blog is manifestation of the greatest and bravest thing I’ve ever done and it isn’t a marshmallow. No one gave it to me; I am making this all by myself, like a big kid. I’m doing this because I squandered some fifteen years of my life trying to succeed by waiting and waiting and waiting to get somewhere if only I could follow others’ paths long enough.
You know what all those years of waiting taught me? Starvation.
I can’t wait any longer.
I’ve finally accepted that the researchers aren’t coming back, that the marshmallow in the room with me became stale and toxic while I waited and that I never even liked marshmallows anyways. I realized that I am ravenous and hangry for the stimulation, connection and fulfillment I haven’t been getting by sitting in the empty room to which I was guided. So I chose to walk out of that empty room – I’m still walking out of it – hungry and terrified of punishment, of failure, of being sent back in there.
I passed the damned Marshmallow Test and I almost died of a soul-deep hunger because of it because of it.
So, you know what? I am taking the Cookie Test now. Forever.
I am going to go make myself some damned good cookies and I will eat them victoriously and with great smugness, take whatever punishment and castigation that comes my way then share my metaphysical cookies anyways. I’ll share my cookies, people, because I always create too much to feed just myself and I hate letting quality nourishment go to waste, even if it means feeding the hungry haters and trolls.
Welcome, everyone, to Shaman’s Antics. A blog about metaphysical (and sometimes even physical) cookies that are full of smarties even if I don’t have much dough to put into them. Yet.
A last ending note:
Resisting hunger is DANGEROUS. You can and will starve if you do it too much, for too long. Hunger pangs, be they physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual or whatever else exist for a damn good reason. Hunger tells you that there is something you need to ensure your continued survival that you’re not getting. Just like you wouldn’t depend on someone else to let you know if you’re hungry or not, it makes no sense to believe other people when they tell you that you’re not really sad, not really bored, not really unfulfilled. Unfulfillment is soul-hunger. It can kill you spiritually as much as depression can emotionally, a lack of stimulation can mentally or anorexia can physically.
This is true for everyone but especially true for multipotentialites and gifted people, who have a need for a much greater variety of sources of nourishment than the average person. These people both possess a drive to create so high that they will consume the “calories” from their metaphysical meals faster than most.
This isn’t a bad thing or the result of greediness, it’s just how people work. You have to put something in to get something to come out. Much like Olympic athletes are supposed to have diets that include more nutrients, vitamins, proteins and overall calories than that of the dude who works in a cubicle and thinks exercise is walking to the vending machine twice because they forgot their change the first time, so too must multipotentialites and the gifted consume more to be able to produce more.
And everyone wants the gifted to produce more, don’t they?