Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Other People are People

The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment is a little bit famous.  Children were given a marshmallow but told they could have a second if they waited 15 minutes to eat it.  The children were followed through a substantial part of their lives and many positive correlates were found with not eating the marshmallow.  The experimenters concluded that this showed the power of self-control and the ability to delay gratification.

Now, as it turns out, there are different reasons why you might eat a marshmallow quickly rather than wait for a second.  The chief of these reasons is that you don't think the second is actually coming.  A much more recent experiment found that if children are allowed to spend time with researchers in advance of a marshmallow trial the children who are given clues that the experimenter is reliable wait, on average, four times as long as those who are given indications that the experimenter is unreliable.  If it were about impulse control then the opinion of the experimenter should make very little difference.  Interestingly, the scientist who led the original marshmallow experiment had conducted research himself to show that belief in the reliability of the experimenter was a significant factor in children's ability to delay gratification for a reward, but he did not control for this in the longitudinal experiment.

So the flaw in the experiment is not anything to do with the setup or error in the results, it is with the interpretation of the results.  Children who do not wait for a second marshmallow have remarkably worse results on the whole - this is true.  The important thing that was missed is that it is children who do not wait, not children who cannot wait.  "Do not" is a fact, "cannot" is an unsubstantiated inference.

The idea that this has to do with self-control rather than with credulousness basically comes from the idea that the children being experimented on are boxes that the experimenters are pushing buttons on rather than people.  The idea that the children might be making good choices based on the evidence available to them doesn't usually enter the discussion.

No doubt we have learned a lot about people by putting them in rooms and giving them little tests.  But we have to be very careful in extrapolating the results of those little tests into a wider environment.  There's a classic experiment conducted on every Psych 101 student where a list of words is read out that includes many words relating to sleep or spiders or some other subject but does not contain the word "sleep" or "spider" or whatever.  When asked to list as many words as they can, many people will include that missing word.  Is this a profound insight into how our memory works or a profound insight into how we learned to be successful in school?  Has anyone conducted this experiment on a culture where a high value is placed on memorizing oral histories?

Other people are people, it turns out, even the little ones.  If we were so simple that would be explained and predicted by simple rules then there would already be fungi that grew on our brains and rewired us to get ourselves eaten by wolves so it could reproduce in their guts.

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