The Marshmallow Test is a famous psychological study in which children are offered a choice between a small sweet now or a big sweet later. Kids who can’t resist the former tend to be have more trouble in life.
Interestingly, this famous experiment started in Trinidad to look into why Asian Indians had more money than blacks: because the Indians were better at resisting immediate temptation for long term benefits. Fortunately, the academic Walter Mischel came up with a rather transparent rationale for why the big race gap on his test wasn’t really, when you stop and think about it, about race, it was about whether the child’s father lived with him (which seems to correlate closely with race, but hey look a squirrel!)
Walter Mischel wrote:
“The marshmallow experiment allowed us to see how children managed to delay and resist temptation, and how differences in this ability play out over a lifetime. But what about the choice itself? I started to ask that question while I was a graduate student at Ohio State University, well before I joined the Stanford faculty. I spent one summer living near a small village in the southern tip of Trinidad.
The inhabitants in this part of the island were of either African or East Indian descent, their ancestors having arrived as either slaves or indentured servants. Each group lived peacefully in its own enclave, on different sides of the same long dirt road that divided their homes.… I discovered a recurrent theme in how they characterized each other. According to the East Indians, the Africans were just pleasure-bent, impulsive, and eager to have a good time and live in the moment, while never planning or thinking ahead about the future. The Africans saw their East Indian neighbors as always working and slaving for the future, stuffing their money under the mattress without ever enjoying life”
“To check if the perceptions about the differences between the ethnic groups were accurate, I walked down the long dirt road to the local school, which was attended by children from both groups.” “I tested boys and girls between the ages of 11 and 14. I asked the children who lived in their home, gauged their trust that promises made would be promises kept, and assessed their achievement motivation, social responsibility, and intelligence. At the end of each of these sessions, I gave them choices between little treats: either one tiny chocolate that they could have immediately or a much bigger one that they could get the following week”
“The young adolescents in Trinidad who most frequently chose the immediate smaller rewards, in contrast to those who chose the delayed larger ones, were more often in trouble and, in the language of the time, judged to be “juvenile delinquents.” Consistently, they were seen as less socially responsible, and they had often already had serious issues with authorities and the police. They also scored much lower on a standard test of achievement motivation and showed less ambition in the goals they had for themselves for the future.
Consistent with the stereotypes I heard from their parents, the African Trinidadian kids generally preferred the immediate rewards, and those from East Indian families chose the delayed ones much more often. But surely there was more to the story. Perhaps those who came from homes with absent fathers—a common occurrence at that time in the African families in Trinidad, while very rare for the East Indians—had fewer experiences with men who kept their promises. If so, they would have less trust that the stranger—me—would ever really show up later with the promised delayed reward. There’s no good reason for anyone to forgo the “now” unless there is trust that the “later” will materialize. In fact, when I compared the two ethnic groups by looking only at children who had a man living in the household, the differences between the groups disappeared.”
In Chicago, a black guy from Trinidad lived upstairs in my condo building. He was a CPA. He said that Nobel Literature laureate V.S. Naipaul was a substitute teacher at his school, and, as you might expect, was a tough grader. I never asked him if he came from a two parent home in Trinidad. I would bet he was.