Homemade Marshmallow Experiment

Besides genetic predisposition, both education and environment also play major roles in determining who will succeed in later life

In the nineteen-fifties, children would have been lucky to get daily non-vegetarian dishes – especially those in a family of nine. When my sisters and myself were young – seven of us – it happened on many occasions that we would sit at table for dinner. Rarely did our parents accompany us because either Father was late coming from work or there might not have been enough place for him and Mother who, after all, was most of the time busy in the kitchen sorting out our dinner.

I presume that such fraternal and enthusiastic reunions would have taken place when the aroma from the kitchen had already announced the succulence to come. We would gather in the ‘office’, which was an old concrete building with a tin sheet roof – in fact it was once a kitchen –, but a new kitchen built southward had promoted it to the status of an office. We would sit there around a rectangular table, fresh after the evening bath and glowing with unbridled gustatory expectations and watering mouth for the imminent treat to come – courtesy of the mater. In those days it could only mean a nice goat meat curry with rice and some salads. Or it could mean fish curry instead.

Flesh was generally planned for weekends, when we would be away from school, hence the reference to those over-activities that had stimulated the gastric glands and sharpened our appetite. We were a happy lot at that time, though some of us might still be ruminating about recent foul play or unfairness between sisters and brothers that had lingered in the air previous to the evening bath. But generally the time was for relaxation, good humour and expectation as each one of us was called by the mater to collect our plate with the precious victuals. That was how we ended up round the table, generally with a spoon (because a fork was not in our tradition at that time) and personally I always wondered why should one wish to poke such a spiky metal in one’s mouth. On many occasions we would use our hand to eat, true to the Indian tradition.

And so it came to be that we would tackle our ‘émaillée’ plate contents without much ado. After all we were youngsters who had been excessively tired after a day’s running about, playing all sorts of games and indulging in all sorts of pranks that we children knew the secret of. I suppose we talked, laughed and criticized, but the main concentration was on the much-awaited flesh in our plate.

Maybe the children that we were made us cast a furtive look at our neighbour’s plate to see who could have been privileged by the mother and given more meat or fish. I can still hear how one of us would grumble for having got a smaller share compared to another’s bigger morsel. Of course, it could just have been an illusion arising out of childish greed or emotion. Anyway we ate, and all along observed how others around were fairing with their share. Some of us would gulp or tackle the meat early in the round; someone else would go for the rice with a bit of gravy while keeping the meat jealously on the far edge of the plate for later relish, or still one of us would go for the watercress salad and some rice first. Each one of us had his or her own style and order of tackling the menu at hand.

Some did better, covering the meat with some rice for later ‘exhumation’ and consumption with utter satisfaction. Yes, most of us would delay before walloping our meat or fish, as we would keep it as long as our temptation could last.

I remember how at such mealtimes I would on occasions play the clever chap after having eaten all my meat pieces but one or two and seeing some remaining pieces in the plate of one of my sisters, usually sister N. She was the most docile, and less prone to flare up and protest. So I would hold my plate with the single piece of meat on it with my left hand and gently slide it over her plate, taunting her with it. And as she would naively cast a lazy glance at the offered trophy, I would slyly negotiate my right hand between the two plates and grab the pieces in her plate surreptitiously. Of course she would soon realize that a dirty trick had been afoot. But to be fair to myself, I must say that the pieces of meat were returned – though with some hesitation and heartache. For various reasons that trick gradually petered out.

And so that was how, decades ago, we children used to play pranks at much to our delight and mischief and far from parental glare. Years later an extreme and funny version of that rustic experience did happen again at home. We were then a joint family, with three brothers and their families, living under one roof. There was an incident involving one of our cousins, D., again surely on a weekend, when we would get visitors who often brought sweetmeats or French pastries.

After the departure of our relative, we children were expecting intensely to have the cake in our mouth as soon as possible. One of the elders cut the cakes and distributed the pieces, which we relished in the veranda of our colonial styled house. But our cousin D thought he was cleverer, and slipped away to hide behind one of the typical fine reed sofa of those days, thinking perhaps that if he were called last he would end up having a bigger share. But when he finally emerged and enquired for his share, he was flabbergasted to learn that all cake was gone into the others’ stomachs! “Rira bien qui rira le dernier”?

And this brings me to an experiment carried out in the US in the early 70s, which became known as the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. Children of four years were presented with an equal share of marshmallows, and told that they could either eat them right away or wait for some 15 minutes before eating, in which case those who waited would be given twice the number of marshmallows. At the word go it was found that about one third of the children walloped their sweets in no time; another one third could withstand the temptation up to some 6 minutes, and the last third stayed put for the stipulated 15 minutes — before giving way to the torture.

The interesting thing was that the experimenter followed the progress of those children for the following two decades or so. And the surprising fact that emerged was that those children who had resisted the temptation to have an early go at their marshmallow were doing better in life. They were happier in their married life, had less divorce and their job satisfaction was higher. In short success was kinder to them than their friends who had grabbed their sweetmeats in no time.

That could have been the end of the experiment.

But some of our scientific minded people amended the experiment, on the assumption that nature alone could not have determined those four-year old’s lifelong fates so early on. So two groups of children were chosen, one was given some crayons and promised to get bigger and better ones if they refrain from using the first lot immediately; then, true to plan, the experimenters kept their promise for that reward to those who refrained from writing immediately. The second group of children was told, after some time, that they could not get the promised crayon, for one reason or another, in spite of their restraint.

After that priming session, when the marshmallow experiment was repeated, it was discovered that children of the second group, who were disappointed by the failed promise would eat their sweets as soon as possible, while the first group would apply restraint again because of the previous respect of the elders’ promise.

So, who delays eating their marshmallow and who rushes to devour it immediately will depend on previous priming – that is, previous social experience or disappointment.

Hence it was deduced that, besides genetic predisposition, both education and environment also play major roles in determining who will succeed in later life. And that’s how this Stanford experiment had reminded me of our early days in our ‘office’. Did the habit of postponing the prompt gulping of our venison point to a better future for any of us?

May be an independent observer could tell us. And perhaps he could also throw some light on the neuro-psychological make-up of that fellow who hid behind a sofa – in the hope of getting a bigger share of cake.

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