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Jerry Buelter: The marshmallow effect

Jerry Buelter
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

I never liked marshmallows. Or, maybe I did at one time and ate so much so I ended up sick to my stomach. Anyway, I would have done well with this experiment unless of course those conducting the experiment chose Milky Ways instead.

The Stanford Marshmallow experiment was conducted in 1970 by researchers Walter Mischel and Ebbe Ebbesen, who hoped to determine when the role of delayed gratification developed in children. In the experiment, a child, ranging from just over 3 to just under 6 years of age — was offered the choice of a marshmallow or pretzel, and if they were able to wait a period of time, the child would be rewarded with twice as much of the treat.

Mischel and Ebbesen observed, “(some children) covered their eyes with their hands, rested their heads on their arms and found other similar techniques for averting their eyes from the reward objects. Many seemed to try to reduce the frustration of delay of reward by generating their own diversions: they talked to themselves, sang, invented games with their hands and feet and even tried to fall asleep while waiting — as one successfully did.”

A followup to the experiment in 1972 tried to capture and further define the results found in the original. What they concluded was, “The Stanford marshmallow experiment is important because it demonstrated that effective delay is not achieved by merely thinking about something other than what we want, but rather, it depends on suppressive and avoidance mechanisms that reduce frustration.” In other words, they found other things to focus on, some even slept.

Of all the experiments that followed since then, I found the one conducted in Rochester (2012) the most interesting. In this case, children were divided into two groups. One where the “experimenter” had just broken a promise and the other group whose promise was kept. Needless to say, those in the group where the “reliable tester” was established were able to delay their want for a marshmallow up to four times longer than those who had the “unreliable tester.”

I hate wearing masks. Whenever possible, I go without. Fortunately, I am not on the frontline. I do come into contact with frontline workers from time to time and wear my mask out of respect for the work they do and in large part for the work they will not have to do if I keep them and others safe.

I consider all medical care workers, first responders, teachers and yes, retail workers first responders. I choose not to jeopardize their health so I wear a mask, maintain social distancing recommendations and continue to monitor my own health.

Am I wrong when I consider that wearing a mask is like practicing self-control? Am I able to realize that I might receive two marshmallows instead of one if I can follow recommended guidelines for just a little longer? Or is it better to create my own diversions (did any of you notice how many of us camped out this summer compared to years past) so I don’t have to think about it?

I realize there is an issue with trusting those in positions of power, either elected or appointed. And I recognize why we have some reasons to feel that way. But I do have a thought. Once not too long ago, an acquaintance of mine was accused of a serious offense. Those of us who knew this person were uncertain as to what to do when it came to whether to believe the charge or the denial that followed.

My thought was that since they denied the charge, we believe them. If it is proven they were guilty, the law would handle the sentence, and we might feel “betrayed.” If on the other hand, this individual was found not guilty, and we had chosen not to believe them, we would never be able to resurrect this relationship.

I choose to believe our medical professionals. I trust those on the frontline who deal with this situation every day. If this all turns out to be a hoax, then I will have to adjust how I feel about our officials. If it is not, I will not have to say I am sorry for any infections I caused.

It saddens me to think the power of self-gratification may supersede health and rewards most certain to come if we could just hold out a little longer. I want our kids back in school full time. I want our restaurants and stores back to full capacity. I want our mountain open to where we can come and go as we please.

And by the way, it sounds like the other marshmallow will be here shortly. Do we have the self-control or the ability to create just one more diversion until it arrives? Do we trust in those who are about to deliver?

Jerry Buelter taught and coached at Steamboat Springs High School for 20 years and served as an assistant principal and principal at Steamboat Springs Middle School for 17 years.


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