Friday, January 28, 2011

The Toxic Marshmallow

Imagine that you are 4-years old, and that your parents have volunteered you for a research study that will cause you to experience a most excruciating kind of pain. A researcher leads you into a room and sits you at a table. A marshmallow is placed in front of you. The researcher explains that you will be left alone with the marshmallow, and if you decide you want to eat it, you need only to ring the bell. If you do, the researcher will return. You will eat the marshmallow and your trial will be over. However, if you choose not to ring the bell, and to hold off on eating the marshmallow, the researcher will return and give you a second marshmallow.

There you sit, with the sticky sweet marshmallow on the table, under your nose. You can see it, smell it, and practically taste it. Of course you want two of them. You are 4-years old. You need two of them. The question is how will you survive 15 minutes of child-torture to claim the jackpot?

I watch you through the one-way window. I see you sizing up the marshmallow. I see you fidgeting in your chair. You are desperately trying to wait. I want you to wait. I am rooting for you.

I would like to tell you about the little boy before you. He didn’t just look at the marshmallow; he focused on it. Was he stoically testing his will power? Did he think that his desire would wane?

A little girl, before him, seemed to know the power of the marshmallow. From the very beginning, she knew that she was no match for its power. She got out of her chair and crawled under the table. Then she sang songs from Sesame Street.

15 minutes passed quickly for her. The researcher returned to the room and awarded her the second marshmallow. Not so for the little boy. The seconds crawled by, and after 30 of them, he rang the bell.

I have given you the clues to solve the problem. Now you will need a strategy. If you choose a strategy that keeps the marshmallow on your mind, you will most likely fail. If you choose a strategy that distracts you from thinking about the marshmallow, you will probably succeed.

But, what does it matter? One marshmallow or two. What is the big deal?

Psychology professor, Walter Mischel first conducted his famous marshmallow experiments on 4-year olds in the 1960s. When he later followed up on his subjects, as teenagers, he found that the high-delayers -- those who could wait 15 minutes -- had S.A.T. scores that were, on average, more than 200 points higher than those who could wait only 30 seconds.

By knowing how to delay gratification, the high-delayers studied harder, and avoided getting into trouble. They got into better schools and they went on to get better jobs. They also had better personal relationships.

The low-delayers -- the kids who were not able to delay gratification for 15 minutes -- were more likely to grow up making life-damaging choices like dropping out of school, abusing drugs or alcohol, and even committing crimes.

Imagine that you are a teenager sitting at home, after school, staring at a boring textbook and struggling to get through the chapters that need to be read and digested by the next school day, and the phone rings. Your friends are getting together right now. You hear the fun and laughter in their voices. You want to be with them. You can be with them. It’s as easy as ringing a bell.

The good news is that Mischel and his researchers found that they could teach kids how to ignore the marshmallow. One way is to pretend that the marshmallow isn’t real, but is actually just a picture of a marshmallow. You look at it and imagine a picture frame around it. You can make the marshmallow lose its power over you. There are plenty of effective strategies, but for most kids, such strategies have to be learned, developed, and practiced.

The bad news is that only about 30 percent of Mischel’s marshmallow kids found a way to last the 15 minutes.

I had never heard of Walter Mischel or his classic marshmallow experiments until I read an article in 2006 by New York Times columnist, David Brooks, titled: Marshmallows and Public Policy.

In it, he suggests that policy makers miss the mark when they try to improve education exclusively “with structural remedies,” such as reducing class sizes, creating more charter schools, and increasing teacher pay, instead of asking the core questions, “such as how do we get people to master the sort of self-control that leads to success?”

Wanting to know more on this subject, I found an article written by Jonah Lehrer, in 2009, in The New Yorker, titled, Don’t! Lehrer tells us a lot more about Walter Mischel and the original marshmallow experiments, and takes a closer look at more recent versions of those experiments, conducted by Mischel and by other researchers.

Lehrer also takes a look at one highly successful program -- the KIPP network of charter schools -- that delivers the “structural remedies,” such as excellent teachers, enlightened administrators, and long, rigorous school days, while also addressing the “core questions” by teaching the benefits of self-control. KIPP has grown to 99 schools across the U.S., all located in inner city neighborhoods, where kids who are left on their own, are more likely to become gang members or be killed by stray bullets than to go to college.

So, when I asked you to imagine that you were 4-years old, and to put yourself in the room with the marshmallow and the bell, how did you do? I will confess to you right now that I do not know if I would have lasted the 15 minutes.

But I do know this: we are all marshmallow-tested throughout our lives. Why should we wait, when we can have it now? Why save up for a new car, when we (as a television commercial tells us) can drive it out of the showroom for just our signature?

We can certainly own that new car, or new boat, or even a new home, without actually being able to afford it. It’s easy. We just borrow the money. Actually, as far as the home is concerned, we can’t borrow that money nearly as easily as we might have just a few short years ago, you know, before the economy fell off the cliff.

But, back in the good old low-interest-rate days of 2002 to 2005, all we needed to unlock the magic gate to the Good Life was to be a homeowner. By owning our own home, we had a lot more than just a roof over our head; we had that special something called equity. That nest egg, that pot of gold, had increased in value like clockwork, year-in and year-out. And betting that it would continue to increase like clockwork was the safest bet we could ever make.

Really, how can you lose owning real estate? After all, everyone needs a place to live. The population is growing, not shrinking, so demand always exceeds supply. It’s practically a law of nature.

But there is a huge problem with sitting on that kind of pot of gold. You can’t see it, or touch it, or hear it, or smell it, and most importantly, you can‘t spend it. So it’s entirely possible, in these good old days of 2004 and 2005 to feel that you are slogging through life, stuck in the mud of being house rich and cash poor.

So for god’s sake, listen to your friends and neighbors, and bankers. Actually, you can’t help hearing them. Their voices are loud and constant. Stop being a chump! Life is short. Opening the gate to the Good Life has never been easier.

You deserve that Caribbean cruise that has for years been at the top of your wish list. Smell that salt air! Taste that champagne! You will return refreshed and restored.

Your kitchen is an absolute embarrassment. How many years have you been talking about the new granite countertops, which will not only be breathtakingly beautiful, but will increase the resale value of your home?

You dream of that winter condo on a golf course in Arizona. Practically speaking, you can’t afford not to buy it. It’s an investment. While you’re walking the fairways, the equity will be piling up.

Go ahead and take the money. It belongs to you. Stop fidgeting in your chair. You had better sign the paper, before the rate goes up. If you snooze, you lose.

Why are you hesitating? Do you think that tomorrow the sun won’t come up? Do you think that by 2007, the housing bubble will burst, buyers will disappear, prices will plummet, and one-third of your pot of gold will vanish, as though it never existed?

And then what? Your adjustable rate mortgage will reset to a higher interest rate, and you won’t be able to make the payments on both the condo and your home, so you put the condo up for sale, but now there aren’t any buyers, so you have to let the bank take the condo?

And are you worried that by 2008, a Great Recession, caused by colossal greed, recklessness, and stupidity will come along and cost you your job, and you will no longer be able to make the payments on your home, which by now, is worth less than you owe on it, so, in desperation, you and your family move-in with your parents, who have just downsized into a smaller home, where they were about to begin enjoying the retirement for which they had so carefully and patiently planned?

Is this what’s worrying you? Do you honestly think you could lose everything?

So, do you not grab your easy terms, pre-approved ticket to the Good Life?

How do you resist? How do you distract yourself from thinking about the rich granite, the balmy salt air, and the tantalizing view of the 18th green?

It is now 2006, and the housing market has slowed down -- way down. Home buyers are disappearing, prices have stopped rising, and in some areas, they‘ve actually begun falling. But that sticky-sweet loan application is still on the table. There is still time to pull the trigger, to grab the money, to ring the bell.

If you had been one of those, sitting at that table, I hope you did not do it. I hope that you did not borrow in order to buy what you could not afford. I hope you waited.

And I wish others had too.

At the KIPP school in Philadelphia, students were given tee-shirts, bearing a slogan: Don’t Eat The Marshmallow. KIPP kids became walking billboards, imprinting the minds of each other with a message that could possibly save their lives.

Even now, in 2011, it is too soon to know exactly how many lives were lost in the greatest economic unraveling since the Great Depression, and we will never know how many of those lives could have been spared, if only they had gotten the right message.