On Not Eating the Marshmallow

Helen Betya Rubinstein

If I were a preacher—if I had a sermon—if I were a protester, a radical in the totalitarian regime of the self—if I were fearless enough to be jailed—or fearless enough to break out—if I were Aretha, or the organist on her gospel album, or her reverend father—if I had a voice like that—a voice with a dream, the kind of voice that screamed—then I’d scream you a song about—

That sweet fluffy thing.

That white, pearl-white thing.

That cylindrical, softened at the edges, toasted-brown or burnt-black funny thing.

That squishy, that melty, that swells-up-in-the-microwave-then-turns-to-dust thing.

That corn-syrup thing. That gelatinous, horse’s-hooves thing. That thing on the plastic table, at the experimenter’s office, where one child’s parents are now getting paid—

She is four years old. He is four and three quarters, or four and a half, or six, or five. The year is 1970, they live in Palo Alto, and they are—they are not—they are—NOT—they are not, not, not—they are notnotnotnotnot, definitelydefinitely not—

—because if they wait for fifteen minutes, or for forever, then!!!!!: they will get two.

 

“It’s called the marshmallow test, and it can predict the future.” “Those who could resist the marshmallow did better in school, and not only that, they were less likely to fall ill or get divorced.” “The ability to wait for the second marshmallow was an amazingly strong predictor of their adjustment, their happiness, even their popularity.” “They are more likely to achieve their life goals.” “They have better relationships.” “They are less likely to have low self-esteem, to engage in bullying behavior, to be overweight.” “They score an average of 210 points higher on SATs.” “They have better adolescent coping mechanisms. Higher educational attainment. Better resistance to drug abuse. Fewer law violations. Lower BMIs.” “It’s a very simple and direct way of measuring a competence that makes an important life difference.” “The most important factor for success.” “The ability to say no to themselves.” “A primeval battle between man, or woman, and their own desire.”[1]

 

For years the test was read as a measure of self-control, or willpower, or impulse control, or the ability to delay gratification. Walter Mischel, the original experimenter, believed that children who succeeded in not eating the marshmallow were able to resist temptation because of “strategic allocation of attention. The key,” he wrote, “is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”[2]

But the experiment can also be read as a measure of environment. Kids who have reason to distrust their surroundings—kids who are primed for distrust by experimenters who initially promise some other treat, then return empty-handed—are far more likely to eat the first marshmallow without waiting for the second. The implication is that those original marshmallow-resisters are not the ones with better self-control but the ones whose caregivers showed up on time and made promises that bore out. If you clean your room, you can have ten extra minutes of TV. If you study, you’ll get good grades. If you work hard, your passion can become your career. If you refuse to give up, you will succeed. If you keep looking, you will find love.

 

I am certain I would not have eaten the marshmallow. But this isn’t because I did excellently in school and on the SATs, have a robust immune system, hardy self-esteem, and a healthy BMI, and have always exhibited a stubborn will. It’s because, when I watch videos of the group who didn’t, I recognize in their childhood faces the qualities of my own: a wide-eyed shyness around adult strangers, an absolute good behavior, a trembling desire to please. I know how I would have felt—that it was only a marshmallow, for God’s sake—and why I would have waited: not because I cared about getting the second one, but because I knew it was what the experimenter wanted me to do. It was so obviously what you were supposed to do.

This is the failure of any test on human subjects: to experiment is to assume it’s possible to control the conditions of experience, so that the psychologists who administer the marshmallow test must blind themselves to the fact that it’s completely obvious, from the instant they enter the room, which kids will not eat the marshmallow. You see it on their long, somber faces.

 

Which is not to say that the test is flawed, only that the correlation between adult “success” and childhood marshmallow behavior can be interpreted in myriad ways. Besides self-control, besides trust in one’s environment, for instance, the test measures hope.

Hope. Because during those long fifteen minutes, there is always a point when a shadow of doubt, of fear, muddies the child’s expression. Maybe no one is coming back. Maybe she has been forgotten. The time ticks by in slow, painful seconds. Some children succumb to their own consternation and mouth-stuff the marshmallow with disappointed, lonesome faces; others buck up—you can practically see the private pep talk, the reminder, she promised two—and their faces clear.

Maybe this hopefulness is actually evidence of imagination: the dull and daily capacity to envision a better future. The capacity to believe in such a future, to convince yourself that a purely imaginary, hypothetical thing—the double-marshmallow dream—will come true.

 

Only one of the many misguided home “marshmallow tests” you can watch online shows a child who failed. Jake of “Jake Marshmellow Test Too Funny” becomes increasingly engrossed in the small treasure before him—he sniffs it, licks it, rubs its smooth skin against his own cheek, and then he’s kissing it, kissing the round part and the edge, tasting it, putting it all the way in his mouth, taking it out, putting it in, out, inhaling its scent, in. His eyes have rolled back, half-closed in pleasure; only after a few salivary seconds do they open, his gaze steady on the camera as the realization hits—oops. Regret flashes across his face, then passes. He chews.

So yeah, as Mischel wrote, it might be about attention. The kids who eat the first marshmallow show an attention to present reality so devoted, so complete, that it supersedes whatever attention they might have paid to the as-yet-unreal. The fantasy of two marshmallows—that promise—is temporarily forgotten.

 

Or, as one best-selling author puts it in her recipe for success: “Add impulse control, and the result is people who systematically sacrifice present gratification in pursuit of future attainment.”[3]

Those people who write for thirty-five hours a week while taking four classes and teaching two because they want to finish their books. Who stop walking home with their friends, because if they bike, they’ll be able to work for ten more minutes. Who forgo morning sex, because morning sex clouds a morning mind. That woman who asks her boyfriend to stop sleeping over, because when he wakes up in the middle of the night to pee, she can’t get back to sleep, and if she can’t get back to sleep, tomorrow’s day is ruined.

This is the point when I begin to wonder.

 

Clichés and truisms:

The grass is always greener where there are two marshmallows.

I’m waiting for Mr. Right marshmallow.

You can’t have your marshmallow and eat it, too.

It’s like waiting for the marshmallow is better than eating it.

 

How the moment before kissing, when a kiss is near-certain but still vibrant with doubt, is always so much better than the kiss itself. So that, if I could send a memo to all the over-eager kissers of America I’d say, oh, just touch my arm, just look at me in a way that promises your kiss is coming—and, if you must, then fine, bring your face so near I can feel the taunt of your breath—but please, please don’t kiss me (your lizardish tongue, your teeth mossy and huge), and once we are naked please please please don’t let me come (because, as I blurted to the only d-bag I’ve ever slept with [I don’t eat the marshmallow = I don’t sleep with d-bags], orgasm is the end of desire, the end of narrative!; it’s the second marshmallow, for god’s sake, a flattening, a deflation, a sobering-up and a coming-down; when finally you’ve received the thing you got yourself all wound up for, which in the end is only some jet-puffed springy fluff-stuff, just empty calories, if we’re going to go there, the kind that burn too fast and leave you hollow—). No, don’t kiss me, because when has a kiss ever not been tinged with disappointment? That awful collision of fantasy and reality: the taste of saliva, the too-loose held hands—

Just leave me in the experimenter’s office with my single marshmallow, the one whose sugary scent is a license to dream, and don’t ever return with the next.

 

I’ve seen the experiment replicated with sugar cookies, cupcakes, Smarties, bars of chocolate in and out of their wrappers, Oreos, pretzels, and round rich truffles in delicate paper cups, but a marshmallow is by far the best. And to the goody-two-shoes of a mother who promised her daughter ten raisins if she could go ten minutes without eating one, I ask: when has a lone raisin ever been the object of anyone’s desire?

SHRIVELED : SWOLLEN :: DRIED-UP : JUICY :: RAISIN : MARSHMALLOW. The marshmallow is a penis, poised and taut-skinned with promise, and the marshmallow is a vagina, made gooey with only a lick.

 

Because it’s uncomfortable to consider, I’ll mention only briefly the experiment’s connection to the actual eating of marshmallows, its odd foreshadowing of disorders like anorexia and bulimia. Both are disorders of control; both correlate with conventional measures of upper-class success and also with parents who are loving, trustworthy, and well-meaning to the point of oppression. Both tend to develop in tandem with a young woman’s own sexuality, with the burgeoning of her crudest bodily desires. Removing signs of womanhood. Starving away breasts and hips. Controlling one’s bodily appearance, as though to control bodily behavior exactly, at even the cellular level.

In another of the Internet’s home tests, a woman lavishes praise on her daughter for resisting a giant bar of chocolate for ten excruciating minutes, then rewards her with two.

 

Not eating the marshmallow

= not settling.

= never dating anyone who’s a bad idea.

= being forever conscious of consequence, as in: so conscientious, such conscience!

= wearing a poker face in anticipation of others’ needs.

= choosing not to empathize with aspects of friends that you’d like to suppress in yourself: not because you can’t empathize, but because you can’t bear to.

= learning not to have an eating disorder, curtailing your desire to starve yourself before it even begins: because that would be fucking up, because you know you’re not supposed to do that.

= resisting the pull of the marriage plot, shirking the end of that story; turning down the peace and the sex of a relationship that’s perfectly fine, in favor of continuing to wait.

 

Since my breakup, I’ve been shopping for a therapist. Two ask if I exercise; I tell both that I run four or five mornings a week. “Even in winter?” they both ask. “Even in weather like this?” they both ask. When I say yes, one answers, “Wow, that’s great. I don’t know how you do it,” and the other says, “Me too,” and adds that, like me, she enjoys jogging in a new pair of Yaktrax and a balaclava.

Why do I trust the first one so much more? It’s not that I don’t want to run in the mornings, not that my jogs feel compulsive or like self-torture—I love the sunlight, love being outside without a coat, love the sparkling look of the park; and besides, they’re not even rigorous, just slow occasions for drifting from dream—

But: I fear that my life already suffers from an excess of willpower and good intent.

As I leave her office, the therapist who also jogs, who has called me “pure” for how little I drink or even use caffeine, says, “This is going to be great,” and what she means, I think, is that I am already such a good student, already a quick study and so well-behaved. With a careful application of newly considered intentions, she means, I will be not-eating another marshmallow in no time.

 

The marshmallow of more sleep. The marshmallow of another drink. The marshmallow of sex. The marshmallow of love. The marshmallow of stay with me. The marshmallow of leave. The marshmallow of going out, the marshmallow of staying home, the marshmallow of total darkness, of giving up, or giving in, of drowning, of drowning.

 

And maybe what the test measures is a tolerance for uncertainty, as children balance the certitude of the one against the potential for two. Which may be a generous way of describing how the position of waiting to hear back can become almost preferable to hearing back itself: because the waiting is when you’re allowed to grind your wheels, your carnival-ride wheels, your bleary, neon, wild-eyed wheels—

See, maybe hope is always fear-fueled. A kind of violent running from the present. Refusing to sober up or come down, you stay high on potential, on the future, on “will.”

 

Or: the capacity to dissociate. “Some of the kids who’d succeeded had managed to stop thinking of the marshmallow as a real marshmallow. . . . They’d imagined it away.”[4]

This is the ability to calmly power through a situation that might otherwise induce anxiety—a car accident, a bad phone call, a smoke detector that wakes you with its relentless and shrill low-battery beep. It’s the ability to hang out with your ex-boyfriend, because he is no longer a real marshmallow: he’s been imagined away.

 

After I tell the therapist who does not jog about the hormone disorder that causes me to have a bit more testosterone than most women, she responds in her British accent, Austin-Powers–like, “You must be really horny.” Then she tells me a story about women who can’t imagine themselves into arousal and as a result, she says, don’t even masturbate. “Can you believe that?” she asks. We grin at each other conspiratorially.

I like this idea of myself, mannish, sexualized, and feel I could tell her anything. How I wake up every morning fantasizing about pressing someone against a wall. Having him take off his clothes and sit on the bed while I begin at his feet. Sex while cooking dinner. Someone who will make love to me while I read.

But the reason I jog in the mornings is because this hormone disorder is an imbalance I believe I caused in myself and can therefore undo, all-powerful, willpower-full. Running before breakfast is supposed to lower insulin resistance, which in turn lowers testosterone, which may one day make it easy for me to conceive. . . .

“Well, what are you attracted to?” she asks.

Like the marshmallow resisters in Mischel’s paradigm, I have gotten so good at diverting my attention from what tempts me, too good—I have no idea how to answer.

 

And what if a proliferation of willpower is always the sign of an abscess of desire? Accumulated, pent-up, ulcerative desire. Neuroticism as the inability to actualize one’s own desires. Hysteria as the fear of desire. What Freud saw in Dora as “symptomatic expressions of her rejection of life.”[5]

 

You see it in abstinence education, antigay legislation, antiabortionism, bras. In orthodontia, hormonal contraception, circumcision, C-sections scheduled weeks in advance. In therapy, with all of its good intentions, its mindfulness and well-meaning. In the fact that the marshmallow experiment can no longer be conducted at the Stanford University preschool where it first took place—because, forty years later, parents there have too many concerns surrounding food, too many worries about sugar, corn syrup, gluten, allergies, the impact of natural and artificial chemicals on psychological and physiological well-being. Because ceding control over what substances enter your toddler’s body is no longer an option.

It’s a mania that stalks, preys, and brays in the terrain of the bodily. Call it fear of death, fear of sex, or fear of death in sex. This is the fear of eating the marshmallow.

 

“You like being responsible?” goads raisin-mom, after her daughter has proven herself able to resist the temptation of a tiny wrinkled dead thing. “Tell me why.”

“That makes me a lot happy,” raisin-girl replies. “That makes me a lot cheerful too.”[6] There is not a hint of pleasure in her voice, but she knows the right answer, and she will perform until she believes it.

 

Notes
[1] Quotations from YouTube video playlist, including “Jake Marshmellow Test Too Funny” http://bit.ly/1oqUDmX.
[2] Lehrer, Jonah. “Don’t! The Secret of Self-control.” New Yorker, May 18, 2009.
[3] Chua, Amy, and Jed Rubenfeld. New York Times, Jan. 25, 2014. [emphasis author]
[4] Originally in What Makes Us Clever? A Horizon Guide to Intelligence, produced by Diana Hill, Jan. 6, 2011.
[5] Freud, Sigmund. Int. by Philip Rieff. Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, 1963 (xi).
[6] Raisin-girl video has unfortunately been removed from YouTube since this essay’s initial composition in spring 2014.

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