Nigerian Marshmallow

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James Clear wrote about The Marshmallow Experiment. The experiment began by bringing children into a private room and placing a marshmallow on the table in front of them.

At this point, the researcher offered a deal to the child – he was going to leave the room and if the child did not eat the marshmallow while he was away, then they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. The researcher left the room for 15 minutes.

Some kids jumped up and ate the first marshmallow as soon as the researcher closed the door. Others wiggled and bounced and scooted in their chairs as they tried to restrain themselves, but eventually gave in to temptation a few minutes later. And finally, a few of the children did manage to wait the entire time.

Published in 1972, this popular study became known as The Marshmallow Experiment, but it wasn’t the treat that made it famous. The interesting part came years later. As the years rolled on and the children grew up, the researchers conducted follow up studies and tracked each child’s progress in a number of areas. What they found was surprising.

The children who were willing to delay gratification and waited to receive the second marshmallow ended up having higher SAT scores, lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, better social skills as reported by their parents, and generally better scores in a range of other life measures. The researchers followed each child for more than 40 years and over and over again, the group who waited patiently for the second marshmallow succeed in whatever capacity they were measuring. In other words, this series of experiments proved that the ability to delay gratification was critical for success in life.

The flip side of the experiment for me, is that the children who practiced delayed gratification, were exposed to consistent experiences and honoured promises as part of the experiment. They had a history of people keeping their word and so, they believed if they were promised a reward in future, they would get it. Not so in Nigeria.

We have a very unpredictable and inconsistent society and that is why we have a “hammer right now” and “grab all you can” mentality. In our parents’ days, you could work for the Civil Service and be assured of a house, a car and the capacity to pay for your child’s education. You fell ill and were sure your health would be taken care of.

Today, there could be petrol scarcity and so we stockpile fuel. The transformer on the street could blow up suddenly, and so we have back-up generators. There is no assurance of a good job if we study and graduate with a good degree. Heck, there is no assurance our results will be found! We rush to board planes because the flight could be overbooked and we don’t trust the airline to be fair. We steal obscene amounts of money to guard our homes and so we have a nest egg, in case we need to fly out suddenly for health reasons. We get into trouble with the law and our only hope of justice is to pay for it. If our rights are trampled upon, there is no credible system to appeal to.

The Marshmallow Experiment helps me to understand Nigeria. We cannot move forward without systemic change and leaders who keep their promises.

We cannot move forward without leaders who keep their promises. Click To Tweet


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