Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

The great marshmallow test.

Walter Mischel first conducted the marshmallow test in 1972. Its significance lay in the correlation between the ability of children to delay their gratification for eating a marshmallow to wait for two later, and a range of later-life outcomes, ranging from career and relationship success to physical health.

I am currently reading a newly-published book, Chatter, by Ethan Kross, who turns out to be one of Mischel’s former students. His own research has been into the impact of people’s inner voices on their functioning, when they get out of control. This is a matter of interest to me after my own ‘adventures’ in mental health over the past few years, and more generally from my work as a teacher. Krall’s proposes that finding ways of mentally distancing oneself from difficulties and viewing them from a wider “zoomed-out” perspective, has the effect of diminishing their immediacy. It is what we do when we replace gut reaction with more objective understanding. It seems plausible.

I could not help myself from applying the idea to other contexts. My own humanities background has always made me interested in what makes places and peoples tick. As a geographer, I have always been fascinated by local behavioural distinctiveness, so I rather instinctively look at the social ‘health’ of whole nations from a similar perspective.

This train of thought was set rolling again recently by a finding that has found that serious drunkenness is significantly more prevalent in the U.K. than almost any other developed country. While there will no doubt be a range of views on the seriousness of this, I take the view that the need of a society to escape from itself may considered a sociopathology and an indicator of less than good societal health. The fact that many in the U.K. may not take this as seriously as I do is perhaps more of a symptom than a cure: no matter what one’s attitudes, the indisputable truth is that alcohol abuse causes multiple negative health outcomes, and that is without considering its wider social and economic costs, or the psychological forces that drive it. I find it easy to conclude that the perceived need of many people in this country to escape from reality quite possibly says something important about the quality of the lives they feel the need to escape from. Such things are not always apparent unless one has a reliable comparator, such as conditions in other countries. We are not talking about a little convivial tipsiness here – though the line between the two is less clear than I suspect many think…

My train of thought took me yet  further, to the ongoing criticisms of the British government for its handling of the Coronavirus pandemic. While I have no wish to excuse possibly the worst bunch of national ‘leaders’ this country has had in generations, I do not think it is reasonable to pile all of the blame at their door. In a country of 68 million people, a handful of politicians can only do so much. Even in my own relatively kindly small community, I have repeatedly witnessed pandemic-related behaviours that I find hard to attribute to anything other than diminished responsibility on the part of their perpetrators.

What’s more, we are daily regaled with reports of the ‘damage’ that the current situation is doing to everything from the nation’s economy to wealth disparities to young people’s mental health. All the time, the tendency is to attribute this to governmental incompetence; what I see is buck-passing on an epic scale: just another sign of a society that was not in good general health even before the pandemic struck.

It struck me that the pandemic is in effect one huge marshmallow test. Whole societies are being asked to put their lives on hold in the biggest test of deferred gratification ever conducted – and just as with the children in the original survey, outcomes differ. It may not be stretching the point too far to suggest that those societies that have coped with the strictures comparatively well are in better collective health than those that have not; the implications for the UK (and perhaps the USA) are obvious.

If there is any substance to this, then we need to look for reasons why it may be so. I do not think they are hard to find: the report on drunkenness perhaps gives the game away. People in the UK subconsciously see routine, everyday life as something they need to escape from; this may speak volumes about those lives, the balance of hardships and rewards within them, the opportunities people feel they have – even the physical environments which they inhabit – all things repeatedly identified as social ills present in the U.K. It may say a great deal about the resultant social attitudes of those people with respect to their own ‘agency’, their sense of personal responsibility, and towards those who govern or otherwise constrain them.

The current problem is not hard to understand: a force of nature that is both highly infectious and quite widely lethal. While one should not disregard the functional conflicts that for instance force people into unsafe workplaces, there have still been very many acts that were arguably nothing more than wanton irresponsibility seen in the light of the Covid facts. They range from large, illicit gatherings to individual acts of low empathy that reflect a simple lack of self-control.

The opinion-pieces in the press bemoaning the loss of the social whirl; the reaction to the intended Christmas relaxation, and its subsequent cancelling – all reflect a reluctance to accept that we cannot do what we want – not what we need. Social contact is certainly important (for some) – but not if you are dead. And the key to surviving the pandemic lies above all in an inner resourcefulness and grit that seems never to have developed in many.

The whole point of learning to defer gratification is the ability to accept that life does not revolve around one’s own immediate urges; that one cannot always have what one wants just when one wants it, even for one’s own good. It means drawing on one’s inner resources to cope with this. This might have been considered an unremarkable point of adult maturity – but it seems that many people struggle with it. It is also a lynchpin for stable societies.

Underpinning deferred gratification is an inability to distance oneself from wider circumstances, particularly when they are adverse. And behind that, in turn, is a need to develop the mental resilience that comes from a fully mature mindset. Similar expressions of this can be found in Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s work on the nature of Flow: the finding that people flourish in conditions where they are challenged sufficiently but not excessively. Having an overly easy life takes you nowhere worthwhile, and leaves you lacking in resourcefulness when times get hard. The chart below explains this:

Part of Flow is recognising the necessity to defer gratification if significant fulfilment is ever to be achieved. This is why athletes and musicians amongst others discipline themselves to train so long and hard. It involves learning to accept short-term setbacks – and even the fact that “success” may never be guaranteed at all. It is also what traditional approaches to education were based on – the need to study long and hard in order to reach a higher state of rational understanding. Its pinnacle may perhaps be seen in the philosophy of the Stoics, which accepted that life can be tragic, and our best salvation lies in learning to accept that fact rather than rage against it. In effect, permanently deferred gratification.

This seems to be an insight that has escaped modern society at large – it is too busy throwing the toys of its indulged lifestyle out of its pram. How else can one understand people complaining about their lost social lives while so many are dying? The inner resourcefulness that might provide a coping mechanism is just not there; though easy, blaming it on others is not the answer.

 It is impossible to separate the various effects of the pandemic’s impact – but it seems to me that a lot of the problems being reported may well be not so much due to unavoidable hardship, but of people not being able to cope with the suspension of things they want rather than need to do. (I suspect those suffering real hardship are largely not shouting at all).

This explains everything from the huge numbers of people on beaches last summer, to the relish with which people surged out after previous lockdowns were eased, to the thousands of small indiscretions where people prove unwilling to alter what they want to do in the light of what they ought to do. No matter that the real risk (infection, as opposed to law-breaking) has not gone away.  It may be easy to pass blame to others, but this is nothing more than evading responsibility for that inability to defer gratification. Likewise, focussing on what is or is not allowed as opposed to what is medically prudent, is a displacement activity used to avoid the need to look at harder truths. To be fair, this does now seem to be sinking in – but did we really have to get to this point for it to do so?

Why has this affected some societies harder than others? I suspect the answer lies in many very long-term factors in the social climate of varying countries.

Much has been made of the stark contrast between the experiences of the UK and Japan, in the context that these two island societies are often quite good comparators. I suspect the reason for Japan’s better experience lies in its culture of scrupulous hygiene, its fabled rituals of social respect and its resultant willingness to comply. Its religious background is close to Buddhism, with associated philosophy of transcendence. These things are all quite different in the UK. The reasons for this lie too far back in this nation’s development to discuss in detail here – but the country’s trajectory over the past few decades has finally been shown to be the pernicious and socially-unhealthy one that it really is.

Prime amongst the culprits is the excessive commercialisation of society. The incursion of the profit motive into almost every aspect of British life has had unremarked impacts on the nation psyche. The often-gratuitous selling on which recreational consumption depends – relies on people doing anything but deferring their gratification. Advertising actively encourages people to yield to their every passing urge, and to do it immediately. It promotes a self-focused, first-person perspective on life, which Kross has correlated with increased risks and impacts of mental anguish. It encourages people not to think hard about what they are doing, or the longer-term consequences. Over time, this – coupled with the infantilising effect that it has on adult mentalities – has greatly damaged the nation’s ability to act defer its collective gratification. Anything that requires it appears a catastrophe in its own right.  The hysteria and outrage that accompany situations where demands are not met is evidence of the depth of the harm being done. The fact that some have started to reflect on their past behaviours is welcome – but is itself evidence that they were perhaps functioning on (commercially-driven) autopilot in the past. Whether new resolve will endure remains to be seen.

It may be argued that the impacts of rampant commerce are not restricted just to a few countries; this is true – but its perniciousness is not the same everywhere, as it interacts with wider social norms and attitudes. Even today, for example, many German shops close on Saturday afternoons, since shopping is simply not seen as the leisure activity that it is in the UK and the USA. It is a functional necessity, but it does not occupy a central place in people’s attention.

I suspect that another factor is the degree of cultural introversion or extroversion in different countries. Those that appear to value extroversion, such as the USA and increasingly the UK, may be finding the loss of interaction harder to cope with than those with more introverted cultures and a higher degree of self-reliance. These are, however, skills and outlooks that can be cultivated, given determination.

My own field of education might have been expected to be the main antidote to this problem. But it too has been re-cast in quasi-commercial terms in recent decades. This has not only affected the obvious marketisation of institutions, but also the culture within them. The emphasis on (marketised) results has narrowed what may be reasonably taught; the need for “consumer” satisfaction has reduced the risks taken by teachers, for example where work needs to be hard, and gratification deferred – in favour of making sessions “fun” – for which read instantly-accessible, undemanding trivia. The more challenging philosophical subjects have been marginalised in favour of those which deliver practical skills and employability – hardly unimportant, but we have created a workforce-society whose emphasis is on the purely functional, and which lacks the mental-philosophical insight or resolve to rise to demanding circumstances.

And above all, it lacks the ability to differentiate between that which might reasonably be blamed on an incompetent government and that which is the failure of individual personal responsibility. Known epidemiological fact suggests to me that it is the latter which has actually been the main reason for the severe impact of Covid in this country: we simply have created a society that lacks the resolve and ability to respond in the required way. We have emphasised personal indulgence at the expense of social cohesion and created a national infrastructure that was configured to operate along quasi-commercial principles and that cannot respond to the current circumstances. Anything that did not, was allowed to wither.

As with individual health, the wellbeing of societies is not a matter of personal opinion: there are behaviours that are more or less healthy, which promote greater or lesser long-term flourishing. The British have a primitive self-understanding in this respect – and attempting to normalise the symptoms, for example by having a light attitude for mass drunkenness, is an expression of the problem, not the solution.

The simple fact is, the British people have collectively proved unable to resist the ‘marshmallow’ even when the risk is widespread death. Some other nations did not. As in the original test, the longer-term consequences are widely significant.

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