Vulnerability, Trust and the Marshmallow Test

In God we trust; all others must bring data.

–W. Edwards Deming

The Marshmallow Test is one of the classic experiments in psychology. In 1972, Walter Mischel gave 600 preschoolers a choice of one marshmallow now, or if they could wait, two marshmallows 15 minutes later. When he followed those kids into adulthood, he found that the kids who could wait had much more success in life.

In 2012, researchers at the University of Rochester added a little twist to the famous experiment. They preceded the marshmallow test with a promise about some crayons that was either broken, or kept.

It turns out that almost none of the kids who were given the unreliable offer ended up waiting for the extra marshmallow. Why should they? They already waited for a promised reward that didn’t come. The rational thing to do in an untrustworthy environment is to take any reward that is presented. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

As I wrote in Box 32 of my Forty-two Boxes essay, children are born trusting. They are totally helpless, they have no other choice but to trust. But then through life experiences, they gather data that can change that default setting of trust.

In my last blog entry, I quoted Mister Rogers saying, “One of the first things a child learns in a healthy family is trust.” This modified marshmallow test demonstrates is why trust is so important. Trust allows people to spend energy and resources now for a greater payoff later.

You are told if you do your homework now, in 10 years you’ll get to go to college, and in 15 years, you’ll have a great career. You are told if you work hard at your entry-level job now, and you will eventually get promoted into management later. But if you don’t trust what you are told, if you don’t trust these equations, if the data keeps telling you there’s a glass ceiling you’re unlikely to surpass, you’ll probably go do something else where the data tells you the odds of success are better.

This is why poverty, racism, sexism, and totalitarianism are so destructive. Not only because those things present roadblocks in and of themselves, but because they corrode the trust that a sacrifice now will be worth a payoff later. Both society as a whole and the individuals in it fail to achieve their potential, because people in an untrustworthy environment take fewer long-term risks, and receive correspondingly fewer long-term payoffs. The result is stagnation.