Saturday, August 11, 2007

"Let's see what happens when we take away the puppy."

There's been some talk in these pages about vices. Non-moral vices, I guess, are habits that are fun in the short term and bad for you in the long term.

There are two elements to vice-resistance. First, you have to judge that, all things considered, it is in your best interest not to indulge. Second, you have to exercise your powers of "delayed gratification," or "the ability to wait in order to obtain something one wants."

With respect to this second element, the classic experiment is the so-called "marshmallow test." Give a bunch of four-year-olds one marshmallow each. Tell them they can eat it, or wait 20 minutes and have two marshmallows. Watch what they do. Wait 14 years, and check on their progress in life. In a result I find depressing for some reason, the kids who waited for the second marshmallow will be better off all around, and even score higher on the SAT.

But what about the first element, the judgment part? The marshmallow test assumes that two marshmallows in 20 minutes is clearly better than one marshmallow now, but that doesn't seem quite obvious to me. Even if it is obvious in this particular example, it is certainly not better to have 3,944,616 marshmallows in 150 years than one marshmallow now. So the principle can't be "more later is always better."

Are two marshmallow peeps in twenty minutes better than one now? Photo by Deanna Nichols. (All rights reserved; used with permission.)

The problem isn't just death. Ask me about 657,436 marshmallows in 25 years versus 13,1487 in five and I have no idea what my preference is.

Of course, all of these problems arise even after you assure yourself that the marshmallows are really forthcoming, that the lab assistant won't get crushed by a falling piano on her way back, that the study isn't really intended to test "incidence of rage and depression among the marshmallow-deprived."

It seems like we ought to prefer more pleasure later to less pleasure now. And presumably this why we're supposed to give up our vices: so we'll be better off in the future.

But, as economists tell us, we're also supposed to have transitive preferences: if you want A more than B, and B more than C, you ought to want A more than C.

Put these together and you get the four million marshmallows problem: you want two at 12:20 more than one at noon, four at 12:40 more than two at 12:20, . . . and so on. By transitivity, you must want 4 million marshmallows in 150 years more than one now. But even if you weren't going to die, it would be crazy to save up *all* your marshmallows.

Maybe all this means is that there is something wrong with transitivity. As Larry Temkin argues, it seems one ought to prefer to suffer at a certain intensity for a certain amount time than to suffer just a little bit less for twice as long. But apply transitivity to this preference over and over, and it seems one ought to prefer two years of torture to a life-long hangnail. Which would be madness.

Maybe transitivity is the difficulty here. But I think there's a harder problem in the vice case. There seems to be no right answer as to how to compare the pains and pleasures of our future selves to those of our present selves. Especially when the nature of the future experience -- health vs. sickness -- is so different from the nature of the present one -- indulgence vs. abstinence.

The further I go into the future, and the greater the qualitative difference, the more I feel at sea trying to weigh future pleasures against current sacrifices.

So I don't think judgments about what is in my long-term self-interest can be justified by appeal to a principle about more pleasure later being better than less pleasure now. At least for me. I seem to need more immediate benefits. Like Captain C., I quit smoking when I could no longer "make it up a goddamn hill." As she says, sad, all very sad.


Charlie said...

One (perhaps unstated) premise of the study seems to be that we should think of the higher scoring SAT group as having made the "right" choice regarding the marshmellows. After all, scoring highly on the SAT is good, so the early in life choices made by future high scorers must be better than equivalent choices made by future low scorers. But I think this is problematic.

You point out many of the problems associated with thinking of the two marshmellow option as "better." One I would like to add is the opportunity cost of waiting around for the two marshmellows.

Because even if the delayed gratification child astutely intuits that the "two marshmellows in twenty" promise is on the level and certain to be executed, the kid still has to wait around for twenty minutes.

By contrast, the impuslive, "I want to eat now" child has already had his snack and could be out organizing an internet start up company during those twenty minutes.

From early in my youth, my dad was always talking about some study that compared lifetime earnings of a plumber and a physician. The physician came out ahead in the end, but, as told by my dad, it took far longer than most people would think. I believe the plumber was ahead of the doctor until the two were in their 40s.

The reason for this is that the plumber could start making money at 18, after high school, while the doctor had to slog through college and med school before he started making money. And not only were the school years non-earning ones, but the doctor had to shell out a lot for the privilege of attending said schools.

All of which is to say, a lot can happen in the twenty minutes while you wait for the second marshmellow, and if you view life as a series of raw materialistc cost-benefit calculations, the kid eating now might not be wrong.

Noko Marie said...

Charlie, I couldn't agree more. There's a lot of hand-wringing these days about impulsive choices. But as you say, you eat a marshmallow now, and you can get on with your life, rather than waiting around. And a lot can happen in 20 minutes.

I thought, also, that the study might be measuring something like deference to authority. If I'd been given this choice as a 4 year-old, I think I would have waited. But I'm almost sure that's because I would have thought the adults regarded it as the "right" choice, and I would've expected a little pat on my head for my efforts.

Anyway, marshmallows? They're not even that good. They should've used peeps.

Captain Colossal said...

So this friend of mine, talking about some people he knew, described them as living by a philosophy termed "anti-Buddhism." As in ardently pursuing 100 percent satisfaction at every moment, as in refusing the idea that 95 percent satisfaction was a desireable outcome. He seemed to disapprove of this as a world view, an outlook the study seems to share. I think it could be kind of useful, especially when you're trying to figure out just how many marshmellows you do want.

The Secretary said...

Can we please resolve the "marshmellow" vs. "marshmallow" thing right now before I go crazy? Thank you.

I agree that the study is flawed: it basically tests how much kids like marshmallows. Was there a control group with candy corn or gummy bears or something?

The concept of delayed gratification (especially when the delay results in a payoff) doesn't really seem related to vices to me. Putting off smoking one cigarette today for two cigarettes in a week seems to be a wash (or even worse) if we are considering cigarettes to be a vice. Ditto as to ice cream sundaes, gambling, cheeseburgers, etc.

It seems more relevant to discuss the price of time and delay: the kids that accept the deal to defer are charging an extra marshmallow to put off their immediate gratification; this is similar to why there is a cost of money now, and why we demand a price to loan money.

Captain Colossal said...

I used "marshmellow" in error; I can't speak for anyone else.

I don't think the study tests how much you like marshmallows; I don't think the relationship between whether you want one marshmallow now or two later alters depending on whether you like the mallow a lot or a little. I say that without any empirical basis.

Noko Marie said...

Hi Secretary, I guess I was thinking that it was "delayed gratification" in the sense of trade your pleasure of cigarettes now for the pleasure of getting around without an oxygen tank in 40 years. Maybe you're right that's not such a good fit. But it's a sort of argument you sometimes hear.

When I searched Flickr for pictures for this post, I found a whole series on "marshmallow farms." That is, lots of people observed huge hay stacks wrapped in white and all thought to make the same joke.

Coincidence, or meme, I don't know.