Of Marshmallows and Masks

Most everyone in my family, most of our friends, and a lot of our neighbors have received at least one COVID vaccination shot! It is starting to feel like this year-long nightmare is winding down. And we are lucky to live in the right country and in the right state and in the right city where things are likely to get back to normal sooner rather than later. No one can deny that this had been a very difficult year. But part of the difficulty had been our own behavior. It is quite possible that if we heeded the science and recommendations from the doctors (not the politicians), we would have been here sooner with fewer lives lost and less devastation to our economy. So why didn’t we do all we could to arrest the progress of this devastating disease? Why did we take stupid risks? Why did some people refuse to wear masks and self-isolate? Well, consider the Marshmallow Test.

Disappearing Marshmallows

Marshmallow TestIn brief, a Marshmallow Test is an experiment that tries to measure the delayed gratification quotient. A child is given a marshmallow (or any other small but highly desired reward) and asked to wait alone in the room with it until the experimenter returns. If a child doesn’t eat the marshmallow while waiting, a child will get another one as a reward. But if a child eats it, there won’t be more coming. The experimenter makes sure the test subjects understand what they need to do and leaves. Many children are unable to wait and eat the marshmallow in front of them. Surprisingly, this simple test can predict the children’s success in life many years later.

Here’s a video of one such experiment:

It’s funny to watch these little kids squirm. You can feel how torturous this experiment is for them. And yet, some manage to get two marshmallows at the end. Some don’t, though.

Thinking about the Marshmallow Experiment made me consider what we went through in this last year. We all had to give up seeing each other, going out to restaurants and social gatherings. We couldn’t attend live entertainment events. We couldn’t go to school or work in the office. And while for some, this last year didn’t change their lifestyles much (there are plenty of hermits that live among us), for most it’s been very difficult, especially for those on the frontlines like doctors and other essential workers. There were no hugs and no kisses and no seeing our children. It was dreadful! So people took risks they didn’t have to — they went shopping more than they needed to, sneaked into underground beauty salons, and insisted on going to gyms. There were secret dinner parties hosted all over Paris. There were underground bars. People started schools, aka pandemic pods, in their basements (not a bad idea).

But here is a thing about self-control (necessary for all delayed gratification), it’s a limited quantity. A kid who has candy all the time might have sailed through the Marshmallow Experiment with ease. A kid who never gets to eat sweets will have a more difficult time of it. A kid who had to spend the morning being “good” — riding in a car for a long time, or doing homework, or working chores — might not have any self-control bandwidth left. It is not all that different from going shopping for groceries hungry — never a good idea. So after being cooped up inside a house for long periods of time, people grew restless. There is even a term for it now: Pandemic Fatigue! Some spent beyond their means on online purchases. I heard that jewelry was one of the stronger selling categories during the pandemic. Some rebelled about the restrictions by refusing to wear masks or going to parties. And when confronted, those people had very public meltdowns. If you have ever experienced a two-year-old temper tantrum, the videos of Karens flipping out in Walgreens over wearing masks were very familiar.

If asked five years ago would we wear masks and self-isolate during a worldwide pandemic, I bet most would respond “of course!” It’s just a sensible thing to do. But we went through politically volatile times and then the pandemic hit. By then, lots of people were spent — there was no capacity for deferred gratification left, the self-control reserves were drained. But none of us like to appear to be out of control, so conspiracy theories were gobbled up like hotcakes and used as justification for outrageous behavior. I’m not excusing people who behaved badly, I’m just pointing out that it was to be expected. And as a public policy, we didn’t handle it well.

But there are actual solutions that help strengthen self-control. The kids who managed to do better on the Marshmallow Experiment employed little strategies that distracted them from the temptation. Some refused to look at the marshmallows. Some talked to themself, helping themselves to stay strong. Some devised little games to distract themselves from the lust for the sweet. When those strategies were taught to the kids who couldn’t help but eat the marshmallow right away, they too managed to earn the prize in the end. Self-control can be taught!

Here’s a great talk by Prof. Dan Ariely, a researcher who studies attention controls, which describes some of the strategies that can be employed for helping us do the unpleasant today for the benefit of tomorrow:

We have just a few more weeks before we vaccinate enough people in the US to get to herd immunity — about 80%-85%. It’s not that long, but we are seeing cases go up again, and the death numbers climb. How can we design social strategies to get people to comply just a little bit longer? Prof. Dan Ariely talked about developing substitute goals, basically gamifying the unpleasant for the better tomorrow. We need to do the same with wearing masks and social distancing. Note that we had already done so but with the opposite results — wearing masks was made into a political statement, and thus people proudly refused to comply with medical guidelines that were meant to keep them, their loved ones, and their communities safe. But we can use a different substitute strategy, right? Wearing masks doesn’t have to equal politics. We can equate mask-wearing with piety — not a very fun substitution, I know. How about mystery? Print three things that make you special right on the mask. How about paying people to advertise products with ads printed right on the masks? How about making masks of certain colors for those who are single or want to play online games together (we can put QR codes right on the mask)? Or we can make bookish masks for those that belong to book discussion groups? There is an opportunity to get to know each other better…or to lie about ourselves.

There is so much opportunity for creativity here, it boggles the mind. And yet mostly, we just yell and get upset when people don’t follow the rules. Humans really are rule-breakers. But we can design social constructs that make us want to follow the rules or do things that are good for us:

And now for those who had the self-control to get to the end of this newsletter…here’s a free ebook: Twin Time, a historical novel featuring Russian Revolution and an autistic child lost in time, will be free on Amazon from April 16th to April 20th! Enjoy!

2017 SF Book Festival Award