The Original Marshmallow Test
Bereishit (Genesis 1:1-6:8 )
Imagine you are presented with a puffy and fluffy, deliciously looking, and sweet-smelling marshmallow. You are told that you have a choice. You can eat this marshmallow now, or, if you can muster the self-restraint and hold off eating it for a while, you will eventually get a second marshmallow to enjoy along with the first. What would you do? Eat one now or constrain yourself to double your fortune?
Social psychologist, Walter Mischel, initially conducted this famed Marshmallow Study back in the 1960’s with preschool aged children. He then tracked them for years afterwards. The children who demonstrated self-control by waiting until the researcher returned to the room had higher standardized achievement tests, lower body mass index (BMI), decreased substance abuse, and lower rates of divorce later in life as compared to those who gave in to temptation. Those who exhibit self-control are generally more successful, healthier, and have better relationships than those who don’t.
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb notes that we can sum up the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in contemporary psychological terms by saying that they failed the first marshmallow test. Adam was told by God not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Yet the snake’s incitement and the aesthetic enticement of the fruit, led to Eve's and then to Adam’s self-control failure.
This reading is appealing from the basic sense of the verses and has basis in the commentaries. For instance, when the verse informs us that Eve took the fruit and ate it, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin explains that “she was not able to strengthen herself over the desire.” Yet, just looking at this episode as a test in self-control overlooks another essential element and an important character in the story, namely, God.
In an updated version of Dr. Mischel’s study published in the most recent edition of the journal Psychological Science, researchers explored other variables that may contribute to a child’s success in the equivalent of the marshmallow test, besides sheer self-control. They were particularly interested in finding out to what extent a child’s ability to delay gratification was dependent on reputation management (concern for what other people would think of them). They found that when children were told that their teacher would find out if they were able to wait or not, the children were more likely to wait than those who were told that their peers would find out, and more than those who were not told anything about others finding out.
The story of Adam and Eve is not just a failure in self-control but is also a failure in reputation management. They fell short in their ability to be concerned with what God commanded. They ignored the fact that He would find out the results of the experiment.
If we are looking for self-control strategies that could help us along our own journey and struggles with delaying gratification, we would be wise to keep in mind reputation management. To the extent that we care what God thinks of us and believe that He will find out the results of the test, perhaps we would do a better job to not eat whatever our metaphoric marshmallow may be.