Global Crisis Blog

America and the Marshmallow: Obama’s Real Dilemma


America today faces the same choice that psychologist Walter Mischel presented to a group of American four-year-olds in the 1960’s. 

     In a famous experiment, Mischel offered the pre-schoolers a tasty marshmallow, in full view and ready to pop into their mouths, or two marshmallows if they could wait for 20 minutes. 

      Some kids grabbed the ‘instant gratification’ marshmallow.  Some waited.

      In a follow-up study, Mischel showed that the kids who could defer gratification were better adjusted, more dependable, and got SAT (scholastic aptitude test) scores that were 210 points higher than kids who wolfed down the tempting marshmallow, when graduating from high school.

       Later, Daniel Goelman featured this experiment in his book on Emotional Intelligence.

       Today,  America as a country confronts a similar dilemma.  After years of small or zero personal saving, with rundown infrastructure, inadequate human capital investment and staggering public debt,  Americans are looking at a tempting “marshmallow” on their tables.  With the economy struggling to emerge from recession, and with job creation anemic,  Americans are asked in various ways to resume their old habits of spend/spend/spend (marshmallow NOW!). 

    But what America needs is a bit of improved deferred gratification.  It needs to increase saving, in order to pay off huge debts, rebuild infrastructure, modernize its factories and revamp its failing schools. 
     How in the world can this occur?  What will bring Americans to wait for the two marshmallows?  When an enormous bloated monster exists — advertising, marketing, sales — whose sole purpose is to get Americans to spend, when not even a ‘mouse’ organization exists to encourage saving, and when Americans no longer trust banks, brokers or investment funds, after losing half their pensions and life savings —  why would Americans suddenly become good at deferring gratification?

     Two years ago, scientists discovered the physical location in our brains, where the ‘marshmallow’ decisions are made. [1]   Americans do have brains.  They do have the medial-frontal cortex capability of waiting for the two marshmallows.  It just needs some exercise, after withering from disuse.    Perhaps an adult version of the grade-school program “Stoplight” (see box)  might be in order.

      Somebody (President Obama?) needs to tell Americans that the party is over.  It is time to tithe — set aside ten per cent of everything for future marshmallows.   When this happens, we will know America is serious about remaining a First World power, rather than sinking into Third World mediocrity.       




     In school lessons in social/emotional learning,   posters on school room walls remind kids, that when they get upset, they should remember:

      Red light – stop, calm down, and think before you act.

     Yellow light – think of a range of things you should do (not just your first impulse)

      Green light – pick the best one and try it out.

What about an adult version?   Spread similar posters all over shopping malls, Macy’s,  supermarkets, Wal-Mart…?   Red light — do you really need this shmata?  Will it really make you happy?  Yellow light —  think of other ways you could invest that money, and how much more good it could do, either for yourself, your family, or for others.   Green light — pick the instant marshmallow, or the delayed one — after using your medial-frontal cortex, which daily grows stronger and stronger.   

[1] Marcel Brass and Patrick Haggard,   “To Do or Not to Do: The Neural Signature of Self-Control ”  Journal of Neuroscience, August 22, 2007, 27(34):9141-9145.