Of all of the uniquely American failures these last four months of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, none were more consequential than reopening too soon. Instead of waiting for the cases to subside sufficiently, we dined, traveled, and shopped prematurely, even on President Donald Trump’s own criteria. Reflecting on this specific failure, it is not too early — or too late — to learn lessons that will save lives.
The famed Stanford Marshmallow Experiment has a deceptively simple setup and a powerful punchline. Place a marshmallow or other sweet in front of a child. Promise the child that, if they wait to consume the treat, they will receive double the reward. Data reveal that children who withstood the temptation are more likely to succeed later in life. This maxim — that self-discipline is virtuous — feels painfully obvious during this roller-coaster ascent of new infections. Had we held the line during the case plateau, we would be eating the second marshmallow of expanded commerce and ample ICU capacity.
But we must also consider the second lesson of the marshmallow experiment, one that has only been learned recently. New research has shown there is more to the original findings, which may have been confounded by the sample of children. Subsequent experiments reveal that both the educational and socioeconomic background of the particular child and their family impacts their capacity for self-control and its “value” later in life. Once you account for key factors in a child’s life, the virtue of delaying gratification looks less pronounced and more complex.
New theories abound as to why the effect varies across class, but it may reflect anxieties about the unknown. As Jessica Calarco wrote for the Atlantic in 2018, “there might be food in the pantry today, but [not] tomorrow, so there is a risk that comes with waiting.” For some children, eating the marshmallow immediately may be a prudent strategy — not a lack of self-discipline.
Similarly, the cost of the pandemic’s social distancing guidelines — the cost of waiting — has never been felt equally across the country. Millions work in jobs that rely on physical commerce and face-to-face interaction, sectors that have been decimated. If your employment was not impacted directly, perhaps your life was disrupted by round-the-clock child care without the reprieve of school or camp.
For many Americans, the choice to wait and reopen was hardly a function of boredom or self-control. It was a tightrope walk of stress, anxiety, and the real possibility of financial ruin or homelessness. Unsurprising, then, that the choice became an avatar for existing political and ideological differences.
The new, nuanced conclusions of the marshmallow experiment affirm the value of delayed gratification across class status and underscore the pressures facing the country in its exercise of self-control. It is much easier to endure stringent measures like lockdowns when there is both a collective sense of purpose in doing so and a social safety net that supports people during the necessary months of deprivation.
We need leaders to rally the country’s self-discipline and make it laudable. We need additional financial relief to alleviate the fear of eviction and hunger. These actions will make it easier for every American to hold the line in their personal choices on a daily basis. While our coronavirus experience has thus far been a story of chaos and grief, the window of opportunity for minimizing suffering never truly closes.
Poll a group of children if they would rather have one marshmallow or two, and the consensus will be clear. The decision to reopen the economy is assuredly more complex. But the choice between the economy and our public health is ultimately a false one. The only solution to the pandemic and its economic calamity is, quite simply, to try our hardest to contain the pandemic.
Appreciating the full arc of the marshmallow experiment means not only choosing to endure a little longer but working to help the Americans for whom the choice to wait is most difficult.