I learned a beautiful question from TedX speaker Brené Brown: What is the story you are telling yourself?
Many people believe they are successful because of their hard work and intelligence. They discount the impact of external factors. A story they tell themselves is that success is the result of hard work.
Covid-19 provides many of us a time for reflection. One of my reflections has been on the question: why would some people choose to party or gather despite the many warnings about how this virus spreads?
After years of studying human behaviour, I try to assume that there is an underlying logic in how people make decisions and that, at times, I just do not understand that logic.
This is a difficult stance to take at times. Yet, in countless instances, working to understand the underlying logic brings great insight. In the wake of Covid-19, I have seen stories of people having parties during an era of physical distancing.
Most times these stories are shared on social media with a comment that says something like, ‘these people are stupid!’ or ‘are these people crazy?’, or ‘these people are selfish idiots’.
Each time I see one of these posts, I question the logic behind engaging in such reckless and irresponsible activities. If, however, I am going to believe that people have an underlying logic for the decision they make, then I need to work harder to understand their underlying logic.
The question becomes, what am I not understanding about the choices these folks are making?
Then it hit me. I was reminded of the famous 1988 ‘marshmallow study’ by Walter Mischel. The study basically goes like this: children ranging between the ages of four and six are brought into a lab and told by an experimenter, ‘you are free to eat the treat, but if you wait ten minutes you will get two treats’.
The question is simple, will these children trade short-term gain for a larger long-term benefit? The key is that the treat is very appealing. If this were a carrot or broccoli, children would have no problem waiting the ten minutes or wouldn’t care to have two pieces of carrot or broccoli.
The study found that many children waited ten minutes and were able to enjoy eating two marshmallows. The study concluded that children who waited had high self-control and were able to engage in delayed gratification. What made this study even more interesting is that when Mischel followed up on the children 10 years later, the children with high self-control were doing better than those with low self-control.
This idea of self-control and delayed gratification fits the story successful people tell themselves and confirms the pre-existing belief that if I work hard and sacrifice now, I too can and will be successful. But this is only part of the story.
In a variation of ‘the marshmallow study’ researchers at the University of Rochester came to a different conclusion. Prior to the marshmallow test, they had children play with paper and crayons, but the box of crayons was difficult to open. The experimenter explained that they had more crayons in another room and would soon return with a box of new crayons.
In one group, the experimenter returned with a box of crayons. This was the ‘reliable’ group. The idea was that in this group the children would come to think of the experimenter as ‘reliable’.
In the second group, the experimenter returned empty-handed. They said they could not find a new box of crayons. The intention here was for the children in this group to think of the experimenter as ‘unreliable’. What do you think happened when they introduced the marshmallow?
The researchers found that children in the ‘unreliable’ group waited approximately three minutes before eating the marshmallow. The children in the ‘reliable’ group waited an average of twelve minutes. The marshmallow study has for many years implied that delayed gratification is a hallmark of success.
What stands out about this study is that children from the ‘unreliable’ group may have learned not to trust what adults say or that things promised may not come to pass. When the future is uncertain, it is the rational thing to choose immediate gratification. The implication that children’s capacity for delayed gratification is connected to the reliability or unreliability of their environment should make us pause.
If someone determines that things in the future may or may not happen, then choosing immediate gratification is in fact a logical response. I grew up with young men who did not expect to live past 18. As a result, they took enormous risks. For many, those risks took their lives. Never for a second did I think they were stupid. In fact, some of them were very smart.
When we have a society where some people do not see a place for them in the future, we have put them in a position to choose immediate gratification.
When the future is uncertain people are more likely to make short-term decisions. It is my experience that successful people love the interpretation that self-control and their capacity for delayed gratification has led them to be where they are. This story fills their ego and is consistent with the stories they tell themselves.
Perhaps there is a different story here—no one thing leads any of us to succeed and as great as we think our own abilities are, external factors play a big role.
How people perceive the future influences the choices they make today. People who come from uncertain backgrounds may be choosing immediate gratification because it makes sense to them.