“On Not Eating the Marshmallow,” by Helen Betya Rubinstein, appears in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.
Ah, temptation. The temptations of the flesh and of the will, the temptations of what is sweet and what is bitter, and the temptations of knowledge that lead us to set before a child not an apple but its squishy, melty, corn syrup and gelatin equivalent—a marshmallow—to test that child’s capacity to resist temptation and our own desire to interpret the results as a predictor of future success. Helen Betya Rubinstein’s delightful essay, “On Not Eating the Marshmallow,” in KR’s special issue, The Poetics of Science, lays before us all these temptations, made more seductive by the temptations of its sharp and lovely prose. What do we mean by the poetics of science? We might find one answer in the delicious ways Rubinstein’s essay sweetens its skepticism toward this famous experiment with a probing meditation on the temptations of self-denial.
As its title suggests, this special issue—The Poetics of Science—is devoted to the many ways in which science writing can be a literary art. Some of the most exciting writing out there right now takes up the dual challenge of making science lucid to general readers and revealing what is lovely in those fields of data. Rubinstein offers us an unconventional lead; her essay begins not with the sobriety of the well-conducted experiment, but the passionate desire that this psychological test was designed to measure and, implicitly, condemn:
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.
What she’s wishing for, in this opening ode to the pleasures of the marshmallow, is duende—the passionate cry, the raw crack in the voice of the flamenco singer that Frederico Garcia Lorca identified as the Dionysian impulse in art which raises the hair on the arm and puts fire in the blood. The comedy in Rubinstein’s cri de cœur, of course, lies in the disparity between her summoning of these dark spirits and the object of her passion—the marshmallow, in all its candy aisle, corn syrup banality. But that disparity between anticipatory passion and banal pleasure is also the point of the essay, and it quickly takes on a tragic edge as Rubinstein notes that the experiment designed by the psychologist Walter Mischel to measure children’s ability to resist temptation in favor of deferred rewards can also be seen 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.
Rubinstein admits to her own bias here: sitting in that room as a four-year-old girl, she’d resist the marshmallow with every fiber of her being, holding out for the sweeter pleasure of parental approval and the promises that “good” parents use to train their children in impulse control: 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.
The promise of reward begins to ring hollow here. Can any parent really promise that hard work will guarantee that a child can turn her passion into a career? Can they really say If you keep looking, you will find love? As she watches the videos of the children who resisted the marshmallow, Rubinstein experiences a moment of self-recognition as she sees in their childhood faces qualities that she once might have glimpsed in the mirror: “a wide-eyed shyness around adult strangers, an absolute good behavior, a trembling desire to please.” It’s the curse of the well-behaved, self-denying child, who leaves the marshmallow on its plate not because they buy the promise of a greater reward if they resist desire, but because it’s so obvious that’s what they’re 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.
There’s something lovely and sad in Rubenstein’s identification with these unhappy winners. Sure, they will achieve great things in life by their self-discipline, but at what cost? The kid who first licks, then kisses, then savors the pleasure of biting into that tempting marshmallow lives not for some imagined future gain, but in the moment, and his flicker of regret as he realizes he has failed the test cannot conceal the fact that the marshmallow he tastes is infinitely more delicious than the two he would have won by waiting.
What’s brilliant in Rubinstein’s essay is the way it makes the science personal. Mischel’s experiment becomes not just a measure of self-control but a metaphor for all the self-denials that define the adult lives of those somber, disciplined children:
Those people who write for 35 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 forego 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.
Yes, that woman. The woman who works, who writes, who waits for true love because she’s been promised, all her life, that it’s worth the wait. Who runs five mornings a week, even in winter; who never dates charming douchebags; who suffers from an excess of willpower; who secretly feels that the kiss, when it finally comes, betrays the anticipation. Who, pressed by her therapist, admits that she fears the marshmallow, and all that it represents.
Like all good science writers, Rubinstein casts a skeptical eye on both the science and its conclusions, but like the experiment itself, her essay conceals a delicious irony. If the irony of Mischel’s experiment is that it fails to contend with the children who see through the crude rules of this temptation game, the irony of Rubinstein’s essay is that its meditation on the resistance to pleasure gives so much pleasure to its reader. Both are based on an artful sleight of hand, and an act of sublimation: in place of the marshmallow, the experiment offers adult approval, worldly rewards, success. Describing it, Rubinstein savors the pleasures of the marshmallow not as food, but as metaphor for all the temptations we confront, defy, and secretly know we might have indulged. We can enjoy them, shameless, in this lovely essay.
Find more Poetics of Science at the following links: