Everyone knows about the marshmallow test. Kids were given a marshmallow and told that they’d get a second one if they resisted eating the first one for a while. The experimenter then left the room and watched the kids endure marshmallow temptation. Years later, the kids who had been able to fight temptation were found to have higher SAT scores, better jobs, less addiction, and better physical fitness than those who succumbed. The meaning was clear; early self control, whether innate or taught, is key to later success. The test results and their interpretation were, scientifically speaking, too good to be true. And in most ways they weren’t true.
That wrinkle doesn’t stop the marshmallow test from being trotted out weekly on LinkedIn and social sites where experts and moralists opine. That trotting out comes with behavioral economics lessons, dripping with references to Kahnemann, Ariely and the like about our irrationality as we face intertemporal choices, as they’re known in the trade. When adults choose an offer of $1000 today over an offer for $1400 to be paid in one year, even when they have no pressing financial need, they are deemed irrational or lacking self control, like the marshmallow kids.
The famous marshmallow test was done by Walter Mischel in the 1960s through 1980s. Not only did subsequent marshmallow tests fail to show as much correlation between not waiting for the second marshmallow and a better life, but, more importantly, similar tests for at least twenty years have pointed to a more salient result, one which Mischel was aware of, but which got lost in popular retelling. Understanding the deeper implications of the marshmallow tests, along with a more charitable view of kids who grabbed the early treat, requires digging down into the design of experiments, Bayesian reasoning, and the concept of risk neutrality.
Intertemporal choice tests like the marshmallow test involve choices between options that involve different payoffs at different times. We face these choices often. And when we face them in the real world, our decision process is informed by memories and judgments about our past choices and their outcomes. In Bayesian terms, our priors incorporate this history. In real life, we are aware that all contracts, treaties, and promises for future payment come with a finite risk of default.
In intertemporal choice scenarios, the probability of the deferred payment actually occurring is always less than 100%. That probability is rarely known and is often unknowable. Consider choices A and B below. This is how the behavioral economists tend to frame the choices.
|$1,000 now||$1,400 paid next year|
But this framing ignores an important feature of any real-world, non-hypothetical intertemporal choice situation: the probability of choice B is always less than 100%. In the above example, even risk-neutral choosers (those indifferent to all choices having the same expected value) would pick choice A over choice B if they judge the probability of non-default (actually getting the deferred payment) to be less than a certain amount.
|$1000 now||$1,400 in one year, P= .99||$1,400 in one year, P= 0.7|
|Expected value =$1000||Expected value = $1386||Expected value = $980|
As shown above, if choosers believe the deferred payment likelihood to be less than about 70%, they cannot be called irrational for choosing choice A.
Lack of Self Control – or Rational Intuitive Bayes?
Now for the final, most interesting twist in tests like the marshmallow test, almost universally ignored by those who cite them. Unlike my example above where the wait time is one year, in the marshmallow tests, the time period during which the subject is tempted to eat the first marshmallow is unknown to the subject. Subjects come into the game with a certain prior – a certain belief about the probability of non-default. But, as intuitive Bayesians, these subjects update the probability they assign to non-default, during their wait, based on the amount of time they have been waiting. The speed at which they revise their probability downward depends on their judgment of the distribution of wait times experienced in their short lives.
If kids in the marshmallow tests have concluded, based on their experience, that adults are not dependable, choice A makes sense; they should immediately eat the first marshmallow, since the second one may never materialize. Kids who endure temptation for a few minutes only to give in and eat their first marshmallow are seen as both irrational and being incapable of self-control.
But if those kids adjust their probability judgments that the second marshmallow will appear based on a prior distribution that is not a normal distribution (i.e., if as intuitive Bayesians they model wait times imposed by adults as a power-law distribution), then their eating the first marshmallow after some test-wait period makes perfect sense. They rightly conclude, on the basis of available evidence, that wait times longer than some threshold period may be very long indeed. These kids aren’t irrational, and self-control is not their main problem. Their problem is that they have been raised by irresponsible adults who have both displayed a tendency to default on payments and who are late to fulfill promises by time durations obeying power-law distributions.
Subsequent marshmallow tests have verified this. In 2013, psychologist Laura Michaelson, after more sophisticated versions of the marshmallow test, concluded “implications of this work include the need to revise prominent theories of delay of gratification.” Actually, tests going back over 50 years have shown similar results (A.R. Mahrer, The role of expectancy in delayed reinforcement, 1956).
In three recent posts (first, second, third) I suggested that behavioral economists and business people who follow them are far too prone to seeing innate bias everywhere, when they are actually seeing rational behavior through their own bias. This is certainly the case with the common misuse of the marshmallow tests. Interpreting these tests as rational behavior in light of subjects’ experience is a better explanatory theory, one more consistent with the evidence, and one that coheres with other explanatory observations, such as humans’ capacity for intuitive Bayesian belief updates.
Charismatic pessimists about human rationality twist the situation so that their pessimism is framed as good news, in the sense that they have at least illuminated an inherent human bias. That pessimism, however cheerfully expressed, is both misguided and harmful. Their failure to mention the more nuanced interpretation of marshmallow tests is dishonest and self-serving. The problem we face is not innate, and it is mostly curable. Better parenting can fix it. The marshmallow tests measure parents more than they measure kids.
Walter Mischel died in 2018. I heard his 2016 talk at the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco. He acknowledged the relatively weak correlation between marshmallow test results and later success, and he mentioned that descriptions of his experiments in popular press were rife with errors. But his talk still focused almost solely on the self-control aspect of the experiments. He missed a great opportunity to help disseminate a better story about the role of trustworthiness and reliability of parents in delayed gratification of children.
A better description of the way we really work through intertemporal choices would require going deeper into risk neutrality and how, even for a single person, our departure from risk neutrality – specifically risk-appetite skewness – varies between situations and across time. I have enjoyed doing some professional work in that area. Getting it across in a blog post is probably beyond my current blog-writing skills.