Rational Impatience and marshmallows (and development)

Back in 1972 Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel conducted experiments in which he claimed to show a correlation between patience and later success in life – in the experiment kids who could wait for 15 minutes before getting two marshmallows, instead of eating one immediately, were likely to be more successful and self-controlled later in life. Michel attributed patience and self-control to some of the kids’ innate capacities.

It turns out that that might not be the case after all. Researchers in Rochester revisited the experiment and show that kids’ choices over whether to wait or not are “moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability,” in other words, kids react rationally to the proposed deal based on prior experience.

According to Celeste Kidd (more on this here), a University of Rochester grad student and lead author on the study:

“Being able to delay gratification — in this case to wait 15 difficult minutes to earn a second marshmallow — not only reflects a child’s capacity for self-control, it also reflects their belief about the practicality of waiting,”

Adding that:

“Delaying gratification is only the rational choice if the child believes a second marshmallow is likely to be delivered after a reasonably short delay.”

This reminded me of the interesting works in economic history (gated, sorry) that try to tackle issues of culture and socialization and their role in economic development. The punchline from these works is that group-specific socio-cultural values have long-lasting effects on attitudes towards investment, saving, entrepreneurship and ultimately economic development (Think of the fabled frugality and self-discipline of Weber’s protestants). Putting some of the critiques of these works aside for a moment, they are a reminder of just how COMPLEX development is.

Because material conditions both shape and are a result of prevailing cultural norms and practices (both Marx and Weber were right!) it becomes difficult to change one thing while ignoring the other (And this is even before you open the pandora’s box, viz: POLITICS). To put it simply, you cannot increase the investment rate in a society simply by throwing money at people. They will spend it on a new shrine for their god or marry a third wife.

This is not to say that it is impossible to transform entire societies in a short while, just that it is not easy, and that we should be humble enough to accept this fact when thinking about how to promote economic development in the bottom billion societies of the world.

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