Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Snakes, Marshmallows, Desire, and Ignorance

Many years ago in junior-high school, I participated in an experiment that would likely not be allowed in the present day – it would be denounced as cruelty to animals and psychological torture.   The experiment asked schoolchildren (myself included) to place their hand firmly against the side of a large jar containing a rattlesnake, and to keep it there even when the snake struck.

At first, no-one was able to do it at all.  In spite of the fact that there was no danger, everyone jerked their hand away.   The first person who succeeded, and everyone afterward who succeeded, was only able to do so by looking away – so that they did not see the snake strike at their hand.   If they were paying attention, they flinched.

This experiment came to mind while reviewing the results of the Stanford Marshmallow experiment, in which young children were presented with a treat (a marshmallow, as you might have guessed) and told that if they did not eat it (no licking or nibbling either) for fifteen minutes, they would be given a second one.   The purpose of the experiment was to test the ability to delay gratification – to forego a treat now for the sake of two treats (double the pleasure) if they could control their desire to have it right away.

What they found in this experiment was very similar to the snake-in-a-jar experiment that I had participated it: those who were successful in resisting the temptation of the treat refrained from looking at it – to turn their heads, cover their eyes, or use their hands to hide the marshmallow from their vision so that they could resist their natural urges.

And some year later, as I am studying the financial habits of adults, I see the same phenomenon.   People have less trouble saving for retirement when the money is deducted from their paycheck, so that they don’t ever see it.   And people saving for specific goals will often open an account with another bank and transfer money, throwing away the statements that come in the mail, so that they are not tempted to pilfer their own savings.

This contradicts the principle that accomplishing a goal, whether by momentary action or the effort of years, requires constant awareness and monitoring.   Sometimes, it is best not to pay attention – particularly when we know that our inclination is to act in a manner that would be contrary to our best interests if we were attentive.

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