The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, Delayed Gratification and more

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Image: The Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from the Ghostbusters movie, 1984

The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, Delayed Gratification and more

In June this year, Jessica Calarco wrote a very interesting article around the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment from the 1960s, which were a number of studies conducted by psychologist Walter Mischel. Mischel was studying correlation between children who displayed delayed gratification and how their subsequent lives turned out to be as they grew up. The studies found that some children could hold off the instant satisfaction in exchange of a delayed but larger gain. Tracking them over several years, it also stated that such children had better life outcomes later in life. These outcomes were gauged using several parameters. Some of these were educational accomplishments, SAT scores, body mass index, among others.

Some subsequent studies tried to disprove this correlation. One of them, mentioned in the article, is a more recent one. Researchers Tyler Watts (NYU) and Greg Duncan and Hoanan Quan (both of UC Irvine) conducted it. Little was found to support the original correlation. The study comprised of a larger sample size (900 as opposed to 600 in the first of the Stanford experiments). One finding was that socio-economic factors also played a role in whether a kid could wait it out or not.

They found kids from affluent families were more inclined and able to wait for the extra marshmallow. Kids from poor families were inclined to take the first marshmallow. They were more inclined to grab something at hand, rather than wait for the uncertain.

A couple of thoughts around this new experiment:

  • Firstly, the phrase ‘did no better’ is debatable. Several groups over time have written off the marshmallow experiment. I think it still has potential. We just need to figure out what data to capture. Doesn’t mean the experiment has no merit
  • I believe the marshmallow experiment, or delayed gratification in particular, is about willpower. And that need not always translate to financial success. People capable of delayed gratification might be more attuned to pursue more challenging pursuits as opposed to easy money
  • Based on examples around us, I suppose both scenarios are possible (rich kids giving in quickly, poor kids waiting it out, and vice versa). However, I think the sharpest growth in achieving potential is more dramatic in poor kids (who perhaps can delay gratification). Consider the small example of America’s leading entrepreneurs who came from immigrant families with humble beginnings

A kid with more grit might be more inclined to choose more worthy and challenging life goals, as opposed to chasing mindless pursuits. Therefore, they might not all be runaway financial successes, but as individuals, there would certainly be that x-factor in them. This factor might be missing in those who might have chosen instant gratification instead.

Kids from an economically poor background surely have far more challenges to achieve something. The few that do, have far more hunger and grit than many affluent kids growing up.

Therefore, while I still think the Marshmallow test is relevant, perhaps proportioning the delay time by economic wellness might give a more clear picture and handle on predicting future outcomes, as opposed to having the same 15 minute incentive for kids across economic strata.

Image: source

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Lose Your Illusion

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Lose Your Illusion

Sometime last year, I had an interesting conversation with a friend’s girlfriend who is a psychologist. Between drawing inferences from my handwriting to discussing human behaviour in general. She also mentioned the acute dearth of mental health personnel in the country (India) at the moment.

I did some reading around that. The most recent global statistic on number of psychiatrists and nurses in the mental health sector was by WHO. The study dates back to 2014. According to it, 30.4% of the world’s countries had less than 1 professional per 100,000 population. There’s also no data available on another 35.5% of the countries.

And while Monaco had a commendable 40.98 psychiatrists per 100,000 people, in India, that number was a shameful 0.30. That means, there’s one psychiatrist for every 300,000 of the population. Or a total of between 3500 and 5000 psychiatrists in the country.

Then there are psychologists (they council, and focus on treating mental and emotional suffering but cannot prescribe medications; unlike psychiatrists, who mainly focus on treatment with medication) As per Sindhu BS, a Mental Health Therapist on Quora, the Indian Psychology Association, of which she is a member, has less than 10,000 members in 2018. Another source mentioned some 14000-15000 psychologists in India. India is already on the higher end of the spectrum as of 2016 when it came to suicides. At 18.5 per 100,000 population.

And here’s why this will be even more concerning going forward. The world is seeing a steadily growing impact of automation on jobs across sectors. India has been shielding employment in every way possible. Resisting industrial automation to maintaining average quality of work worked well for a section of average skilled, low-cost labour.  But how long can it continue to do so before it starts feeling the negative global impact of it? Additionally, India is on its path to soon being the largest population in the world. It is also on the verge of being the youngest population in the world.

Young Indians are pouring into different sectors which will have a steadily shrinking job base. This could lead to a spike in the depression and suicide numbers. But is the country and its government anticipating and doing anything to build a safety net for that?

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Peace, War, or Chekh-mate

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In his book Homo DeusYuval Noah Harari mentions Russia’s greatest short story writers Anton Chekhov having once said that a gun appearing in the first act of a play will inevitably be fired in the third.

Yuval says that since 1945, humans have learned to resist the urge to use weapons of war. Hopefully meaning we have become more mature as humans.

However, we could perhaps attribute it to collective wisdom that often stops an irrational leader from realizing their violent fantasies.

The same however, does not hold true for individuals owning firearms in the US. For a population of around 318.9 million, a tiny % of them own over half the guns!

I belong to the Bunt community, and in my mother tongue, Tulu, there is an old, relevant, and amusing saying. It translates to, “the out of work (or idle) carpenter chiseled the bottom of the baby lying nearby.” It is very similar to Abraham Maslow’s quote, “If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.”

When you own a weapon, the mere fact of possessing one, makes using it one of many possible outcomes in any tough situation. This, as opposed to those without weapons who would look to resolving a problem in a more mature, and civilized manner. Don’t believe me? Here’s an example.

In a minor fender-bender recently, while no one was hurt, one party decided to claim third party motor damages. Being clueless about the claims process, they quickly landed up in a dead-end. Further angered by this, they engaged a “criminal lawyer” to pursue it. The lawyer, also clueless about the process, did not refer the client to someone more relevant. Nor did he take efforts to find out and advise the client on the right process. Instead, he sent the other party a letter threatening ‘civil and criminal action’. True to Maslow’s views, he did the only thing he knew, despite its lack of relevance to the problem.

And yet, in the recently finished US presidential campaign, one of the selling points of a candidate was that the civilian rights to own firearms would not be infringed upon. And that candidate won!

On the upside, defense weapons are becoming more advanced. This is rapidly moving humans away from the core and gore of war, hopefully making it increasingly distant and impersonal. Combined with collective wisdom, this hopefully helps people take less impulsive decisions about it. Unlike in the past, where a ruler could simply order his battle commander to march troops to whichever country or state he fancied. Hopefully future country border tensions would be limited to: “your country broke 5 of our surveillance drones, we broke 5 of yours. We’re even. Now back-off and stay there!”

The domestic front for some countries seems a little more complicated. Especially in the absence of governmental intentions to do away with the access to firearms. It will just take more effort and educating, to prevent the dangers that owning of firearms presents. Let’s hope some technological advancements on that front too, helps eliminate the desire to own firearms soon.

And in the meantime, could psychologist Robert Plutchik’s good old wheel of emotions be of some help? Maybe to help us be more aware of the different degrees of our emotions? This, in turn, could help us be more civil, rational, and accomodating in our outlook and disposition. We just need to strive to have positive emotions that are closer to the center (unless you have a heart condition, then don’t overdo it). And restrict negative emotions to degrees closer to the outer perimeter. Can’t be too tough, can it?

Give it a shot (no pun intended). And hope you have a terrific 2017!

Plutchik‘s wheel of emotion – Source: link

Would love your thoughts on this.
Feel free to share your views. I will revert at the earliest. And if you liked this post, do follow or subscribe to my blog (top right of the page) for similar topics that encourage reflection and discussion. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn and on Twitter.