Helen Betya Rubinstein’s essays have appeared in Seneca Review, Paris Review Daily, Witness, and the New York Times, and her fiction in the Collagist, Ninth Letter, and Salt Hill. She is the Dana Emerging Writer Fellow at Cornell College. “On Not Eating the Marshmallow” is from her current project investigating womanhood, hysteria, and self-control and can be found here. It appears in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “On Not Eating the Marshmallow”?
I’ve wondered about this myself—I don’t actually know. At a certain point in the spring of 2014, I just knew that I was going to write about the marshmallow test. I must’ve read something about it, or had a conversation—perhaps with my sister, a teacher for whom the experiment has practical application—that irked me and stuck in mind. That spring was when I started making notes, and, after waiting for another project to be complete, I sat down and gorged on videos of official and unofficial marshmallow tests online.
You write, “I am certain I would not have eaten the marshmallow.” Can you talk a little bit about why so many of us feel sure, as you do, that we could have waited for the second marshmallow? Though it’s probably a poor indicator of future successes, do you think there is any value in this experiment—does it indicate anything beyond a desire to please?
I don’t know why anyone else feels sure they would have waited! I only know why I feel sure I would have, and the reasons are personal, rooted less in who I am today than in who I remember being as a child. I did like pleasing adults, though it’s more that it was obvious what adults wanted, and nothing felt easier or more natural than behaving in a way that provided it. But I wouldn’t have waited for the second marshmallow only because an adult experimenter might have suggested that it was the preferred outcome. I just enjoyed that kind of challenge: being quiet, sitting still, following instructions, playing alone. I’d push myself to read books that seemed impossibly long, or to work on a single drawing for days. Like many of the children who succeeded in waiting, I had an engrossing imagination—I’d turn anything into a cast of characters, including the tiny bumps on my bedroom wall. And I was future-oriented—I couldn’t even bring myself to spend my tooth fairy dollars. I’m pretty sure I have them still.
I know that people tend to overestimate their own willpower. But I say would have waited, not could have, because it turned out that most children who failed to wait the first time around could be trained to succeed. In the essay I suggest, not totally facetiously, some of the other traits I think the experiment might gauge: hopefulness, a tolerance for uncertainty, the ability to so vividly imagine a desired future that you are willing to sacrifice the pleasures of the present in its name. To be clear, these traits—and the environments that cultivate them—do indeed facilitate future “successes,” as long as we agree that the measurable qualities Walter Mischel and his cohort study constitute “success.” The experiment is absolutely of value; I mean to question only how it’s been interpreted and applied.
Part of my project in this essay, then, is to explore how these traits can also have a detrimental effect on an individual’s experience of her world and herself. (During the research and drafting process, I wrote about this topic for the Los Angeles Review of Books.) Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? and Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child very much influenced my thinking along these lines. Both books demonstrate how the characteristics that save us can also destroy us.
At the end of the essay, you write, “It’s a mania that stalks, preys, and brays in the terrain of the bodily.” Could you tell us a bit more about the “mania” at the heart of this essay?
Much of the fever around self-control seems to be the result of a terrible anxiety about our bodies being bodies—that is, behaving in a way outside our control. Body odor, body fluids, body sounds, body hair: these traces of the animal startle and shame us. So we prescribe rituals for eating, keep mum about sex, and turn a blind eye to the fact of our death. To the person who is afraid of being an animal, the cult of self-control offers a sugary palliative: the fantasy that, by mastering body with mind, the individual might also master her destiny. This is a childish fantasy of omnipotence, a denial that we are animals—and social animals, at that. I see it as part of a cultural mania for reigning in the wildness of our bodies, which it turns out are also our selves.
Were there any surprising details about the Stanford marshmallow experiment you discovered during your research that you weren’t able to include in this piece?
There’s a lot I wish I could have included in the essay—videos using the parable of the marshmallow test to promote abstinence or savings accounts, for starters. As I read and continue to read about the experiment, though, what stands out to me is the political nature of this conversation. Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney’s book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, for instance—on my mind only because I’ve read it most recently—opens by bemoaning the national debt (willpower might have prevented it), and criticizes social science for being “more comfortable for everyone,” since it doesn’t commit the “politically incorrect sin of ‘blaming the victim.’” (Social science is clearly least comfortable for white men like Baumeister and Tierney.) Mischel’s own book, which is less conservative than Willpower and more forthcoming about the limits of self-control, nevertheless devotes many pages to the virtues of the KIPP Charter School network and its rigorous character development program. In an essay titled “S’More Inequality: the Neoliberal Marshmallow and the Corporate Reform of Education,” historian Bethany Moreton notes that corporate rhetoric saturates descriptions of the brain common to this branch of psychology—think “executive function” and the “CEO model of willpower”—and argues that “the rediscovery of willpower has become a policy tool for disciplining Hispanic and African American children.”
Regarding the experiment itself, it’s noteworthy that Mischel would never have discovered the correlation between childhood self-control and adult “success” had his own daughters not been peers of the original subjects, which allowed him to informally keep tabs on their development. In other words, one of the most famous and consequential experiments in contemporary psychology earned its significance not by design, but by a fluke observation conducted outside the conditions of the experiment itself. This is indicative of the limitations of controlled studies of human subjects.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
“On Not Eating the Marshmallow” comes from a collection of linked essays about desire, ambition, achievement, self-control, self-denial, womanhood, in/fertility, hysteria . . . basically, something I can’t quite name, but which I hope the project will help me articulate.