9. The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment (Pt. 1)

The Marshmallow Experiment. Everyone knows the story by now: young children are left alone in a room with a single marshmallow, the attending adult tells the child, “if you wait for the adult to come back, you can have two marshmallows.” It was an experiment in delayed gratification — you can have one now, or more later.

One thing that gets glossed over quite frequently is that the initial study that sparked off the marshmallow experiment called Attention in Delay of Gratification. The study was an attempt to understand how faculties of attention develop in young children. The researchers initially hypothesized that increased salience of a reward would increase the amount of time a child would wait or delay gratification — that is, they thought seeing the reward (a cookie or a pretzel) in front of his eyes, the child would realize how much more of a prize he would get if he waited 15 minutes and delay gratification based on their being aware of a bigger reward.

Moreover, it was not a simple reward/two rewards test. The experimenters conducted 4 different experiments, asking the child essentially, Can you wait 15 minutes to play with these toys? and “he was left waiting either with both the delayed and immediate rewards [two snacks, one preferred and less preferred as chosen by the child], with either the delayed but more preferred or the immediate but less preferred reward, or with neither reward available for attention.”

Those who had neither reward waited the longest, with an average wait time of 11.29 minutes. The children who were to wait for delayed or immediate rewards waited about 5 minutes. And lastly, the children who were to wait for both rewards waited an average of just over 1 minute. Some were able to delay gratification. But among those who were unable to delay gratification, having larger rewards readily available lessened their capacity relative to the reward that was in plain view. That is, it wasn’t just about being able to delay or not to delay. For some, the reward being readily available makes their capacity to delay gratification decrease. The researchers write, “instead it sharply reduced delay of gratification… In summary, children who ere given the opportunity to attend to any of the rewards while they were waiting delayed less long than children who could not attend to any rewards while waiting.”

It is often here that most people jump straight to the parts where correlate the findings to life outcomes, but I am going to ask you to delay that gratification for a moment. There are some very interesting points that come out of this study that I want to draw your attention to.

The first is the focus on attention in this experiment. The researchers have shown empirically, that when a child has a stimulus in plain sight and is told to delay his gratification, that a super-majority (22 of the 32) are unable to delay it. This should not be of much surprise that a child with snacks in front of him would want to eat it. But the point remains that people’s behaviors are undermined and modulated by attention.

The second point: this change in behavior occurs even when the rewards are trivial. , The rewards in question are two animal crackers and/or several pretzel sticks — nothing of any significant value. These children were not starved, nor were they made to wait an extraordinarily long time for the bigger reward. And yet, with such trivial rewards, their capacity to delay gratification was significantly diminished.

These rewards were also readily available and within reach, while no apparent downside to taking the now-reward versus the later-reward. While it is possible to argue that the later-reward was greater and thus there is a relative loss in taking the now-reward, they were both net-gains. Whether the child took the now- or later-reward, both were more than what the child had before, and thus there was no real loss of any value, only hypothetical.

And while the rewards were ultimately trivial, they show that even as trivial rewards, we tend to think about rewards in relation to the other rewards available. Two trivial rewards are viewed as more significant than one trivial reward and through their relative value, significantly weaken our capacity to delay gratification.

Now, we may firmly draw the following conclusions: Our choices and behaviors are undermined and modulated by attention. Our attention can be drawn and held by extremely trivial rewards so long as they are contrasted favorably against another reward. Despite their triviality, these rewards fixate our attention very strongly and this fixation causes us to behave abnormally in their absence. The researchers write, “some children covered their eyes with their hands, rested their heads on their arms… Many tried to reduce their frustration of delay of reward… they talked to themselves, sang, invented games with their hands and feet, and even tried to fall asleep” (ibid). And as long as these rewards are shown to us, given that we pay attention to them, as being favorable in comparison to another reward, our attention will be fixated upon them, either causing us to behave abnormally or we cave and claim our rewards.

The thing driving all of this is attention. It has the capacity to cause you to fixate on trivial things, make things more or less important by make relative comparisons to other things in your frame of attention (even if artificially imposed), and create hierarchies of importance — partially deriving a should from what is even if what is is extremely trivial — to the point of causing abnormal behavior in us.

Given these conclusions it seems a straightforward to set up a system to keep and hold people’s attention. You play this game iteratively — a system wherein after one reward is claimed, another experiment is set up with similar rewards into perpetuity, one after another. Sometimes these rewards will be larger or smaller relative to the reward you’ve received before a la intermittent reinforcement. And through this intermittent schedule of rewards, you weaken the individuals capacity to delay gratification further and keep him playing. And because these trivial rewards are net positive, with no real loss of any value in the context of what is being paid attention to — the trivial rewards at the cost of paying attention to everything else.

In consideration of these conclusions, we must ask ourselves what happens when hundreds of researchers dedicate their lives to creating these iterative feedback loops? Will we act abnormally in their absence only receiving release by giving in and claiming our trivial rewards? One thing is certain: technology, the attention-economy, and the pervasive use of feedback loops is eroding our capacity to pass the marshmallow test.

So far, I have identified the factors that are necessarily co-dependent to building such a system. Now, I will offer four counter measures:

  1. Recognize that our behaviors, emotions, and actions are indeed undermined by what we pay attention to. We usually do this passively, creating states where our attention can be overtaken without our awareness and compliance.

  2. Our attention can easily be held, and very strongly so, by very trivial things.

  3. Realistically evaluate what the reward is and its relative value. The bamboozle is to juxtapose the trivial reward against another trivial reward, making it seem less trivial (or more valuable) in comparison. This is a double-whammy, because you are not only paying attention to the trivial reward, but you are subtly nudged into forcing a comparison against something else of someone else’s choosing.

  4. Realize every single iteration of the attention game habituates you towards having less capacity to resist and delaying gratification.

The critical factor to keep in mind is that these are not single games of attention-capturing, but iterative games stacked one on top of another. The game isn’t about a single fixation of attention, but a meta-game where attention is being coerced subtly towards decreasing your faculties further and shortening your capacity to resist. The end-game is a slow surrender of choice — agency — through a trail of breadcrumbs leading to an unknown destination. We can keep ourselves from going down this path by paying attention to what we pay attention to.

A final point: There were children who were able to wait the entire 15 minutes for the reward. What makes them so much different than the children who were unable to wait? Were they simply ‘born that way’ and genetically predetermined to resist marshmallows? Did they do the calculus to weigh out the cost-benefit analysis of waiting versus claiming the prize now?

Sorry for the misdirection, but I don’t think these questions matter in the long run. What matters is that there are people that can delay gratification, but more importantly to my thesis, there are people that have better control over what they attend to and how strongly they attend to it. And if we can show, as I believe I have, that this capacity can be eroded in people, then there is a modicum of agency that can be lost. And if agency can be lost, why can’t agency can also be gained? If one child can be undistracted by a marshmallow, then why not every child? Attention appears to be fundamentally critical to all of this.

I am not trying to make an ethical argument here about whether a child should or must delay gratification, but instead, I argue that this is something controlled and modulated by attention. It is perhaps this capacity for attention control (not necessarily the amount exerted) that appears to be the most fundamentally human quality.