Simon Parke: Resisting temptation

27 May 2009

SHOCK NEWS — Buddha and Jesus fail marshmallow test. Serious ques­tions are raised over their status as role-models for the youth of today.

Research carried out in 1968 by a psychologist, Walter Mischel, is back in the educational domain, thanks to the think tank Demos. In this research, a child is taken into a room containing a desk and a chair. On the desk is a marshmallow. You can have the marshmallow straight away, the child is told; but if you wait 15 minutes, you can have two. The researcher then leaves the room, and watches from behind a two-way mirror.

The results from this experiment in the United States revealed that about a third of the children ate the marshmallow straight away; about a third tried to resist temptation, but failed before the 15 minutes were up; and a third were successful in waiting. Researchers suggested a correlation be­tween those who could delay gratifi­cation, and good school results.

The idea is that those who are able to defer their desire for a marsh­mallow are able also to defer a night in front of the TV, in order to do some revision. Well done, them. Yet my applause is hesitant, because I suspect that both Buddha and Jesus would have failed this test.

Allow me a story. A man is being chased by a tiger, but reaches a cliff edge. He cannot go back, as the tiger is closing in, but how is he to go forward? Grabbing a vine, he decides to lower himself down the cliff face. All is going well, until he looks below. There is another tiger waiting for him at the bottom of the cliff. A tiger at the top, and a tiger at the bottom. Then he discovers a mouse with very sharp teeth gnawing at the vine that is holding him up.

It is at this desperate moment that he notices a ripe strawberry growing in front of him. It is a succulent red, and he plucks and eats. It is the best strawberry he has ever tasted. Happi­ness is being present to the moment.

So just how great are the test’s “successful” children? Unlike the man in the story, they sacrifice the happy present for an imagined future of acquisition and hoarding. The moral is that people should not be content with present possibilities, but plan for a larger haul some time in the future.

This may make good economics, but it does not make happy people. It is a way of being that both entraps them in the thrall of desired out­comes, and removes them from the present — the only available source of happiness.

Buddha and Jesus might have eaten the marshmallow and failed the test, aware that the present is not only enough, but the only place from which to live. “Enjoy the marsh­mallow, and let tomorrow — even the next 15 minutes — take care of itself.”

Terrible role-models for the young, obviously. But the result? Two happy men.


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