The fight against the coronavirus has been called a “national marshmallow test” that we’re failing. In a famous study, children were left alone with a marshmallow for 15 minutes, and promised a second if they didn’t eat the first. Kids who were better at delaying gratification were found to be more successful later in life. At first, this correlation was explained as demonstrating the importance of willpower and executive function.
Later, a team of researchers set out to replicate this study and uncovered something profound. Once they adjusted for factors such as household income, mother’s education, and home environment at age 3, the effect disappeared. Further variations of the study showed that whether the children judged the promise to be reliable made a great difference in whether, and how long, they were willing to hold off for the reward. Indeed, access to a consistently well-stocked pantry makes it easier to believe those who say that a bigger reward awaits those who can resist eating the marshmallow right away. The precarity and instability of poverty encourage people to live in the moment, simply because the future is so uncertain. Willpower and grit are not merely personal characteristics, existing in a vacuum devoid of social reality. And, yes, hope works, but only when it is realistic and not an empty promise.
If we failed our national marshmallow test this summer and fall, perhaps that says something about how little reason the public was given for optimism. Hope can’t just be a slogan or a pep talk; it must be justified by facts, experiences, and trustworthy promises. And in fairness, until last month, it was less clear when and how this would all end.