Hanneke du Toit

Rotten candy

Rotten Candy

There are some new kids on the block. A new wave of techno-savants are growing up and entering the workforce, interacting with technology as fluidly as with another human being. They lack the innate distrust of technology harboured by older generations, mainly due to growing up with computers. They multitask, attention spread across a variety of media streaming at the same time. Everything is instant, almost everything accessible. Traditional ideas on focus and attention span have all gone out the window. Interacting with technology on a continuous basis did not turn these kids into socially defunct, square-eyed blobs like our parents feared, but instead into highly efficient, inventive and communicative masters of media in the broadest sense.

So I was surprised at the buzz created around an article in the New Yorker on the Stanford Marshmallow Expriment.

In the late 60’s, psychologist Walter Mischel did a study on four year-old children, testing their ability to delay gratification. The premise was simple. Put one four year-old and one marshmallow in a room. Tell the child that he will be left alone for a while. He can eat the marshmallow, but if he waits, he will get two when the therapist returns. The individual children were observed through a one-way mirror, grappling with temptation for about 20 minutes. All of them struggled and about 30% managed to wait. Good on them.

Years later a small portion of the test group was traced down. It was concluded that the kids who resisted, performed better at school than their marshmallow munching counterparts, were happier and better socially adapted.

Another article highlighted that:

… At four years of age gobbling a marshmallow now v. waiting for two later is twice as good a predictor of later SAT [academic] scores than is IQ.

… The quoted source sees the Marshmallow experiment as showing the importance of emotional intelligence. The economists at the Clark seminar just thought of it as a remarkably reliable indicator of general intelligence–apparently even better than IQ.

As parents and educators globally gasped in a synchronised “a-ha” moment, something about it irked me intensely on a level I could not quite explain. I get uneasy when studies use warm fluffy pop-psych terms like EQ. I get suspicious when a basic test is done and the follow-up is not conducted with the entire focus group (they could not in later years track down a large portion of the kids that were originally tested). I dislike that the study essentially implies a big, unhappy, socially-malajusted “fail” for 70% of those kids, and hypothetically so for any other poor kid who happens to be subjected to a similar test. Is it safe to take this kind of blanket approach, applying it to individuals, and then predict their future as bad apples? When they tested the children, did they control for, um, hunger?

I am not a parent or a teacher, but I was also a kid, and I think I probably would have eaten that damn marshmallow. And if I didn’t, it would have had more to do with my genetically ingrained, Calvinistic predisposition for disproportionate, unquestioning respect (read fear) of authority – not because of some admirable, innate sense of self-discipline.

On the rare few occasions my brother and I were allowed candy as kids, I had mine on the spot while he saved his for days, rubbing it under my nose to my great annoyance. He once taunted me with a toffee apple for days, only to bite into a really ghastly rotten fruit when he finally decided to eat it. And in that primal way that only rivaling siblings can rejoice in each others misfortune, I was utterly delighted. So I could not keep my candy but I did well at school, and my over-committed work and social schedule at least suggests that I’m not a raging sociopath. I fail to see what made the entire exercise so revolutionary in the first place. We were all raised on the old “Eat your veg or you won’t get dessert” premise. In fact, I will confidently posit that most people working for a salary find themselves in a continual state of delayed gratification, with the odd exemption of playing the lottery.

Delayed gratification in its extreme is the the “One Day” syndrome: after deadline / next December / when I retire. People live and die that way. There are cubic kilometers of  office space filled with people practicing warm-chair attrition (n. The loss of workplace productivity due to employees who dislike their jobs and are just waiting for the right time to quit and move on to something better/retirement) and layoff lust (n. The strong desire to be laid off from one’s job for a severance package). All of life’s not carpe candy, but there has to be some balance.

The people in the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment are all now in their mid-forties. There are new kids coming in who function differently, and are doing brilliantly.

Perhaps what someone lacks in delayed gratification is made up for in proactiveness, a lack of focus might be the ability to multitask. An inability to conform might be the sharply attuned ability to observe, trouble-shoot, solve. A sense of curiosity trumps having all the right answers, enthusiasm and spontaneity goes much further than a dogged dedication to totalitarian discipline.

The art of succumbing to temptation holds many mighty challenges. (Wilde)

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Filed under: New Media,

4 Responses

  1. Willem says:

    I never saved my candy for later, and can so relate with above argument. Only problem though is that I suspect this also influenced my approach to drinking… Lots – and quickly please… Great writing – can’t wait to see more!

  2. hanneke du toit says:

    I think it was F Scott Fitzgerald who said: write while drunk, edit when sober. I suspect that lead to a lot of complete re-write, and I don’t have time for re-writes! But we should get a whiskey (whiskey with an “e”) when you’re back.

  3. chris says:

    Hi Hanneke, really enjoyed the above, well written,great topic..found myself wanting to know more about the new generation off mini geeks that have become one with the all present technology surrounding and influencing us wherever we go.
    I would even go as far as saying “it has become mans NEW best friend 😉

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