Marshmallow Tests and Corrupt Politicians

vintage marshmallow ad

Marshmallow Tests and Corrupt Politicians

Instead of an Introduction:

In the late 1960s and early 1970s psychologist Walter Mischel of Stanford University performed a series of studies to be known as the Marshmallow Test. In a nutshell, the test was conducted on children aged three to six, who were taken into a room and presented with a marshmallow and a challenge: the experimenter was going to step outside for a moment, if they waited for the experimenter to return, they would get two pieces of marshmallow, otherwise they could eat their one marshmallow anytime they wished (but would not get the second one). The experimenter would leave for 15 to 20 minutes (which in the eyes of children is an eternity), and they would measure the time it took for the children to eat the treat lying in front of them.

As expected, some ate the cookie as soon as the experimenter left the room, while others tried to delay it as long as they possibly could by distracting themselves in different ways. The Internet is full of funny videos of kids doing this in reproductions of the original experiment.

The experimenters returned 18 to 20 years later and found the children that had participated in the original test, and interviewed them again. In the process something astonishing was discovered: there was a direct correlation between the amount of time it took before the child ate the marshmallow and their current rate of success. The children that were able to delay their gratification for longer before eating the marshmallow were shown to be doing better in school, earn more money in their jobs, be happier, and have better relationships with others; while the ones that performed poorly in the test were more likely to have mood disorders, engage in criminal activity, and even end up in jail.

In short, the marshmallow test proved that among the most important factors for success is the ability to delay gratification and be self disciplined to do so.

Our (Unusual) Hypothesis:

Another thing that the Marshmallow Test and subsequent studies proved was that of those kids who couldn’t wait to eat their marshmallows, the majority of them were raised in unstable environments, and so their brains were wired to seek short-term rewards; since, let’s face it, if you live in poverty, you better be sure to eat that cookie immediately, since the chance of finding another one tomorrow waiting for you on the table will be very slim.

A case could be made that corruption, bribes and embezzlement have their primordial origins in people’s inability to project too far ahead into the future (or in some cases, that future might not even be present, and thus impossible to perceive because of difficult conditions), thus deciding to opt for the lesser, short-term reward, rather than the long-term one (which requires more sacrifice and self-discipline, but also grants greater rewards).

It would not be inconceivable to assume that the majority of the people who are currently involved in Kosovo’s politics and public life, have lived some of the cruelest years of their lives under poverty, war, political instability, financial unpredictability, etc. In other words, the 90s in Kosovo were a perfect breeding ground for producing “short-term rewards seekers”.

The original Marshmallow Test was conducted on children up to 6 years old — this is, incidentally, the age of the Kosovo’s young republican life as an independent country. Should we be curious what Kosovo’s Marshmallow Test Scores should be? Had our past been so unstable and unpredictable, that our brains have been wired on a national level to pursue short-term goals?

Therefore, we propose a new set of experiments to determine whether there is a link between Marshmallow Test scores and public officials (and politicians) who are more likely to engage in corruption, bribes and money scandals. In this way, we could come up with some metric that could measure and compare a person’s predisposition for engaging in corruptive affairs.

(Unscientific) Methods and (Enticing) Materials:

With neither a psychology nor a sociology backgrounds we feel inadequate in proposing an experimental design to be used for such a serious undertaking. However, in our modest imagination, we do feel confident in presenting an entertaining lay person’s version of how this experiment could be conducted:

Invite a politician for a meeting into a professionally looking office.

Do not inform them of the ongoing experiment.

The experimenter disguised as an “official” should congratulate the politician for their job well done and say they are eligible for a bonus.

Present them with an envelope full of money. (Exact amount to be decided in a Pilot Study with suggested amounts of €500, €1000, €5000).

Once, the envelope is left on the table, the experimenter should say something in the lines of “You could get this amount now, or wait for double the amount at a later date.”

People who opt to wait should not be called back. Instead, a record should be kept of the amount of days it takes them to return and ask for their money.

During the data analysis stages of the experiment, the correlation between how long they waited and how corrupt they are should be determined.

Results and Discussions:

After a successful set of experiments, lessons learned could perhaps be applied to real life. Maybe some type of an anti-corruption organisation could be established. It’s official name “Department for the Evaluation of Corruption Potential” should be carefully disguised as the “Office for Bonuses and Rewards” to maintain the single-blind aspect as in the initial experiments.

An argument could be made that if politicians and public figures would suffer a bit in the short term by refraining from stealing and embezzling, the situation would be better for them once the state got stronger. In this way they could enjoy the fruits of their labor in the long term (and be able to steal and embezzle even greater amounts, if they choose to do so).

The very fact that a staggering number of officials engage in corruption means that they either don’t believe in the future of Kosovo, or that they are incapable of perceiving a better tomorrow for Kosovo. Whichever the case, they are just like the kids who can’t even wait for the experimenter to get out of the room for them to stuff their mouth with oversized cookies.

This article was originally written for and published at Kosovo 2.0

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