Saturday, October 24, 2015

One Jelly Bean

There's a psych study on delayed gratification in children in which the kids have a choice of eating one jelly bean now, or having a whole bowl of jelly beans later. The experimenter puts the child in a room, places one jelly bean on the table, and says, "You can either eat this jelly bean now, or if you wait until I get back, you can have a whole bowl of jelly beans." I think they also show the child the whole bowl of jelly beans so they'll know what they're getting. Then they leave the child alone and watch them on film, and time how long the children wait before deciding to eat the one jelly bean. Normally the younger kids eat the one jelly bean, and the older kids wait for the whole bowl of jelly beans.

(I should point out that jelly beans are not the best candy to use for this type of study because they are all different flavors. If someone's one jelly bean is a flavor they don't like and aren't planning to eat anyway, they we can't really assess whether they were willing to wait or not. That's a confounding variable).

I can see how this study measures whether or not children will choose delayed gratification, but I don't see it translated into real-world delayed gratification scenarios. The idea that if you give up one jelly bean now, you'll get lots more jelly beans later is not how life really works. A real-life example of the jelly bean scenario would be if an adult had said to me, "If you spend one hour doing homework now instead of playing, you can stay home from school tomorrow and have the whole day to play." That kind of delayed gratification, I would have agreed to. But that's not how things went down. The reward that I was supposed to reap from doing my homework was getting a good education and getting good grades - neither of which I cared about. I only ever cared about having fun, and exchanging fun time for the long term benefit of learning was not something that I ever wanted to do. When I look back on it now, I wished I'd spent my childhood just having fun and not going to school and learning. The jelly bean study indicates that if you wait, you'll get more of the thing you wanted in the first place, but that never happened. My hard work in school only lead to me having to spend MORE years in school - college and grad school - than I would have if I had said, "Screw school, I'm just gonna play and have fun all day." It was not the jelly bean study at all. It was the total opposite.

A more true-to-life version of the jelly bean study would be if the kids had a choice of eating one jelly bean now, or a healthy meal later. If they choose the healthy meal, they don't get to have the jelly bean. That opportunity is gone. Sure, the healthy meal may be better for you, it probably has a higher value than one jelly bean (in terms of cost), but at the end of the day, everyone doesn't want a healthy meal. Some of us just want jelly beans.

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