Can America Pass the Marshmallow Test?
Of course, this positive development comes amidst a backdrop of negative ones. We eclipsed a quarter of a million deaths, hospitalizations and cases are soaring, and we seem to break our daily record every day. We have learned so much about prevention strategies (e.g., masks, the three V’s), yet the usual suspects continue to act as a stronger influence on our collective behavior than logic and judgement. We suffer from ‘pandemic fatigue’, we downplay the virus, and we ‘just want to live our lives’. Lockdowns, curfews, and mandates are back on the table, and as we move into the colder months, cases are expected to keep climbing.
But why? The finish line is in sight…if still blurry and off in the distance. It makes some sense to ‘just want to live your life’ if this pandemic might literally last your lifetime. But things are different now. We don’t have to wear a mask indefinitely. We don’t have to social distance forever. We now have a finite period of time. Which leads me to the question: can America pass the marshmallow test?
We’ve all seen it before. A child sits in a room with a marshmallow in front of her. She can either eat the marshmallow now or—if she can wait 15 minutes—receive an additional marshmallow. Usually the child is left alone and cameras track each agonizing second of the internal struggle. There are volumes of research on this experiment and what it tells us about the child (one study even tracked the kids from the initial sample to see how they performed on their SATs), but in a nutshell, the study determines our capacity to delay gratification. If we assign the utility, or value, of eating one marshmallow a score of 10, then you can have either 10 units of satisfaction now or 20 units later. The key differentiating variable (apart from how much you enjoy marshmallows) is the ability to handle the temporal distance between the 10 and 20 units of value. Can we wait 15 minutes to double our value or is it not worth the effort?
With Thanksgiving and Christmas arriving before the vaccine, we are presented a similar dilemma. More than ever, we all (even introverts) crave time with friends and family. These holidays represent peak companionship. We engage in our favorite traditions, we nurture our most important relationships, we create new ones, and we celebrate our communal and social bonds. For many it is the most joyous time of the year. That joy stems from togetherness—literally lots of loved ones gathered together from near and far in enclosed spaces, eating, drinking, talking, singing, shooting champagne corks off in your backyard (that one may be just my family), and general merry-making. Togetherness is what we seek more than anything, and in a cruel irony, the year we need it the most is also the year we shouldn’t.
Getting together with loads of people this holiday season represents the first marshmallow. It would be immediately gratifying. Like the kids in the experiment, it is tough to not give into the temptation. The second marshmallow is getting together with friends and family post-vaccine. To me it will be sweeter, but it goes back to value assigned to our marshmallow proxies.
Let’s say the value of getting together with loved ones on a normal Thanksgiving is 100, and this Thanksgiving is 200. I do believe the lack of social interaction would make the hugs warmer and the conversations richer than the average Turkey Day. However, the risk of giving COVID-19 to (or getting it from) a loved one would detract from this value. That detraction depends on the individual, but for me it is at least 200. The potential of someone I love getting sick because of me takes that value to 0. That is just the risk itself. If the person actually did get sick, that zero utility turns into disutility with a life of regret. If, instead, I wait for the vaccine before I visit family and friends, the value is more than double, it’s incalculably higher. The joy of embracing my nieces and nephews, singing karaoke or Christmas carols with friends, making merry—without spreading disease—can almost not be assigned a numeric value.
I realize that the above calculations are all about probabilities, so for once, let’s use our irrational behavioral tendencies to our advantage. Prospect theory demonstrates that we irrationally overweight low probabilities. This is why we play the lottery, go to casinos, and buy insurance. There is a 37:1 (2.7%) chance of hitting your number when you spin the Roulette wheel, yet we throw a $20 chip on the board and think, “This is my lucky day.” Perhaps that is because the utility received if it is your lucky day ($700; even though the odds are 37:1, the payout is 35:1 because, well, the house always wins) outweighs the low probability.
Similarly, the chance of a Coronavirus infection is low. The odds are that your Thanksgiving get-together will not be a super-spreader event creating clusters of Coronavirus outbreaks. But the disutility of infecting someone is, well, you can’t really put a price tag on it. Spreading this disease—and its ripple effects—can be catastrophic. So if we are willing to throw $20 on a 2.7% chance of a lucky spin, maybe we can adopt our Roulette logic to the Coronavirus and think, “This is my unlucky day.”
This is a tough post. I realize that every Thanksgiving is somebody’s last and that every situation and circumstance is unique. For some, that first marshmallow is simply worth the risk. While the vaccine is imminent, there is no official deadline for this pandemic to end. The global sigh of relief is pending but we cannot circle a date on our calendars. But if we can wait, if we can hold off on that literal togetherness, that second marshmallow might be even sweeter than the first. Christmas in July, anyone?
Colin Gabler is a writer at heart.