We're Facing a Global Marshmallow Test

We’re facing and failing a global "Marshmallow Test." Even if not individually, we’ve become systemically less good at making smart now-vs.-later decisions. And economics isn’t helping -- it advises "discounting" the future.  


We’re facing and failing a global “Marshmallow Test.” Even if not individually, we’ve become systemically less good at making smart now-vs.-later decisions. And economics (=aggregated psychology, often oversimplified) isn’t helping. It advises “discounting” the future.  

1. Walter Mischel’s “Marshmallow Test” assesses children’s self-control, testing their ability to resist one treat now to get two later. Kids who resisted longer do better as adults (life constantly needs now-vs-later decision, see also Plato’s pastry).

2. Steven Pinker generally agrees with Mischel, self-control is a “single capability,” measurable in childhood, that’s evolutionarily adaptive, and stable for decades. (Aquinas included it, as temperance, among the “natural virtues,” now better called rational life skills).

3. Mischel favors two metaphors: (a) Hot-vs.-cold brain systems pit self-command against impulsiveness. (b) Self-control is like a muscle (trainable, depletable). But Mischel notes Pinker’s “single capability” can mean strong “willpower in one situation, but not another.”

4. For economists now-vs.-later means “discounting” future utility = a “self-evident propensity to value more highly… an asset today… than the same asset… in the future” (Alan Greenspan).

5. Psychologists like Pinker say we rationally “ought to discount the future” (though not too steeply, or unhealthily).

6. But should all future assets be “discounted”? Is a future breathable atmosphere wisely discountable? Should our unavoidable future needs be lessened? Or given great weight in decisions? (See the logic of needism).

7. Future discounting’s most dangerous form is the “net present value” technique, now widely used in cost-benefit analyses. NPV uses a “discount rate” to calculate a current worth for a stream of future revenues. Seems rationally sophisticated? But it’s often only structured guesses plugged into a spreadsheet. Here’s a rare calculo-guesswork confession: Banks = “a collection of guesses.”

8. Short-term profit pressures constantly present business Marshmallow Tests (e.g. lower investment for the future = higher profits now).

9. Plus businesses can benefit by encouraging self-indulgence (=systemic pressure pushing customers to fail Marshmallow Tests).

10. Markets work by aggregating decisions, prudent or not. Nothing prevents them from aggregating imprudence (sometimes spreading its effects to even the prudent, e.g. unhealthy diets increase health insurance rates for healthier eaters).

It’s time we got our time priorities straight. Cultures vary in their future-orientedness. But no culture that “discounts” its future needs has much future. If we don’t become systemically more future oriented, we’ll continue to let markets, the most powerful social forces on Earth, deplete that Earth. Anybody got a second marshmallow-Earth? (See also plot of Interstellar).  

 

Illustration by Julia SuitsThe New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions

Stand up against religious discrimination – even if it’s not your religion

As religious diversity increases in the United States, we must learn to channel religious identity into interfaith cooperation.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Religious diversity is the norm in American life, and that diversity is only increasing, says Eboo Patel.
  • Using the most painful moment of his life as a lesson, Eboo Patel explains why it's crucial to be positive and proactive about engaging religious identity towards interfaith cooperation.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Keep reading Show less

Moon landing astronauts reveal they possibly infected Earth with space germs

Two Apollo 11 astronauts question NASA's planetary safety procedures.

Credit: Bettmann, Getty Images.
Surprising Science
  • Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins revealed that there were deficiencies in NASA's safety procedures following the Apollo 11 mission.
  • Moon landing astronauts were quarantined for 21 days.
  • Earth could be contaminated with lunar bacteria.
Keep reading Show less

NASA's idea for making food from thin air just became a reality — it could feed billions

Here's why you might eat greenhouse gases in the future.

Jordane Mathieu on Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • The company's protein powder, "Solein," is similar in form and taste to wheat flour.
  • Based on a concept developed by NASA, the product has wide potential as a carbon-neutral source of protein.
  • The man-made "meat" industry just got even more interesting.
Keep reading Show less

Where the evidence of fake news is really hiding

When it comes to sniffing out whether a source is credible or not, even journalists can sometimes take the wrong approach.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • We all think that we're competent consumers of news media, but the research shows that even journalists struggle with identifying fact from fiction.
  • When judging whether a piece of media is true or not, most of us focus too much on the source itself. Knowledge has a context, and it's important to look at that context when trying to validate a source.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Keep reading Show less