Time to ‘hold on and not eat that marshmallow now.’​

Swapna Mirashi

Way back in the 1960s, a researcher and his students setup an experiment. Their lab was called ‘Surprise Room’ in Stanford University’s Bing Nursery. Their subjects of study – a bunch (several of them) of preschoolers – 4 & 5 year olds then in the 1960s and at their different life stages then as they grew up, over the decades. Their iconic experiment that ran over several decades was The Marshmallow Test.

The test was simple. Each kid was left alone in the surprise room with a marshmallow in the front with an instruction – ‘if you hold on to that marshmallow until I come back, I will give you another. So you can I two to eat later.’ The study was the test of the kids’ self restraint; their ability to delay gratification – to give away the small pleasures now for bigger gains in the future.

As our world struggles in the pandemic and we are desperate to find some normalcy in life, with the festival season around the corner the next few months is going to be our marshmallow test.

There are a lot of questions unanswered about virus, its spread, the vaccine or building our immunity to it. The only consistent (after the initial fumble on this one) and conclusive direction the scientists around the world are giving us is this – social distancing. What that involves is logical and simple to do in theory but extremely subjective, complicated and tough to put into practice.

Our Marshmallow Test 2020: 
Avoid travel and large gatherings. Limit small indoor gathering 

This means – not going to work /school/ college, no family functions, no friendly get togethers, no socializing, no parties, no sporting events, no theatre, no collective entertainment and now, no social festivities. Meeting only outdoors, if at all (cold winters will add another challenge to the test). Staying at least 6 feet apart. Wearing masks.

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Not easy at all. Perhaps as tough as it is to resist the marshmallow in front of you, the only other thing in a closed room besides you, for a good 15-20 minutes. Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s quote on the cover of The Marshmallow Test by its inventor Walter Mischel says;

“Your view of human nature will change profoundly as you read this brilliant book”

The extensive test found out that those kids who were successful in delaying gratification then at the age of four demonstrated a similar restraint during their lifetime and emerged successful by all standards compared to those who could not. Whether they were conditioned to resist by their strict/ disciplined upbringing or guided by their own resolve, those kids who could practice self-control could eventually achieve what they set out to.

It is that restraint that we as a community (although socially distanced) need to demonstrate now, together. It is that skill – to delay the gratification to host big celebrations or invite friends over for dinner – that we need to find in ourselves and practice now.

If the countries were the kids in the experiment, socializing be that marshmallow, then over the past several month’s records demonstrate that those countries that could follow strict social distancing (enforced and enabled by the government and supported and practiced diligently by its people) are beginning to see the end of this long, dark tunnel.

We need to do this. Isolated but together!