Day 18: I’ll just have the one, thanks

You’ve heard of the marshmallow test, right? Surely you have, if you live in the same media bubble as I do where you listen to NPR and read The New York Times. It’s the famous psychological experiment that offered five-year olds a choice: they could either have one marshmallow now or two if they waited for fifteen minutes. The study then tracked the preschool age-subjects to see if there was a correlation between the choices they made as five year-olds and the choices they made later on in life. The conclusion was that the five year-olds who waited for the second marshmallow proved better at delaying gratification in many other aspects of their lives.

Here’s what irritates me about the marshmallow test. It divides people into two kinds: the self-disciplined who can defer gratification and will go on to lead successful lives in which they read all the books in their field, especially the long and boring ones, and the greedy and impetuous who can’t control their impulses, and will go on to be heroin addicts or, worse, fat. But it’s my view, you’ve guessed it, that there’s at least one other kind of person who fits squarely into neither category, that is to say, who is neither the former (an uptight rabbit type) nor the latter (a lay-about duck).

How would the five year-old duck-rabbit have responded to the marshmallow test? Well, I’ll tell you how. It would have taken the one marshmallow now rather than wait for two later. But it would not have made this choice because it is hopelessly lacking in self-discipline (which is not to say that the duck-rabbit is not hopelessly lacking in self-discipline. It is. But that’s not why it would have selected one marshmallow now). No, it would have made this choice because two marshmallows are not necessarily better than one marshmallow. In fact I’m going to go out on a limb and say that one marshmallow is just, objectively, universally, better than two marshmallows.

One marshmallow is special. Two is one too many. Two is feeling-a-bit-like-you-didn’t-really-want-more-than-one-half-way-through-the-second. Or, two is smugly deciding to save the second for later but then it gets all sticky in your warm little five-year old paw, or you discover too late that marshmallows don’t survive well in pockets.

Is even the possibility of this line of reasoning acknowledged by the marshmallow test? No, it is not. No, the duck-rabbit who reasons in this fashion is dismissed as all duck, just a big bundle of oozing, undisciplined marshmallow-munching impulses.

I mean it honestly all seems backwards to me. Why does the kid who just wants one marshmallow now—no, actually, I don’t want two and I’ve got other stuff to do, so I’ll just take the one now and get on my way, thanks—embody a lack of self-control? Personally, I think choosing one marshmallow now displays an abundance of admirable traits: self-knowledge; time-efficiency; a mature recognition that just because society says that two marshmallows is better than one doesn’t mean you have to want two marshmallows. If I sound a tad peevish, I am. I am indignant on behalf of all those five-year olds who just know what they want and they don’t want two fucking marshmallows, as my daughter would put it.[1]

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “look D-R, you’re just not that into marshmallows. But that doesn’t invalidate the test. In fact, they let the five year-olds choose an alternative treat if they weren’t into marshmallows.”

No, you’re not following me at all. It’s nothing to do with the fact that it’s a marshmallow. If it was something that the duck-rabbit was really into, like dark chocolate, or wine, it would feel the same way.

Let’s take wine. Same thing. I’ll just have the one glass of wine now, thanks. What, if I wait fifteen minutes you’ll bring me two and then watch me just work my way through them, one after the other, lined up on the bar? Uhh, no thanks, mate, I’ll just take the one now.

Now, I’ll be honest, with wine the metrics are slightly different. I’m gonna say that with wine, two glasses of wine = one marshmallow. Because, yes, I do sometimes enjoy drinking two glasses of wine. But even so, I’d still argue that I like one glass of wine now better than two glasses of wine later.

It gets even clearer when we’re talking about more than two glasses of wine. My view, you see, is that for a duck-rabbit of my particular size and tolerance, two glasses of wine is perfect. Obviously, you need to adjust the quantities according to your own constitution. But for me, two glasses of wine is the optimum amount. And on the occasion when, nearly at the end of my second glass of wine, I think, “I feel so good, so good that I think I need another glass of wine so that I can sustain this sense of enormous well-being,” and I go ahead and get started on a third glass of wine, it generally happens that half-way through that third glass, I will realize that in fact two glasses really was the optimum amount and that I have now pushed past that place of enormous well-being to a place of slightly-unwell-being. But by then it’s too late because you can’t undo that extra half glass of wine.

You’re still skeptical? Wait, it’s about to get even clearer. Let’s move on to numbers of children.

It’s been my belief for some time, dating from the time when the younger flopsy-duckit was approximately six months old, that there is a mystic correlation between my wine threshold and my children threshold. You see, after my daughter was born, I was deliriously happy. So happy that I quite seriously began to think that I wanted another baby. I mean, not right away, obviously, but after a reasonable equivalent-of-fifteen-minutes-in-the-marshmallow-test interval of time. Luckily there was another person involved in this decision. I say luckily because after about six months I had the very powerful sense that I had had my two glasses of wine and that to have another baby would very likely be to have that sinking feeling half way through the third that two was actually the optimum number.

I’ve shared my two children = two glasses of wine theory with a number of friends.[2] I believe that my sharing of this theory may have actually prevented conceptions of third children occurring.[3] In conclusion, I sometimes think that if the world were run by those of us who would opt for one marshmallow now, thanks, then we could solve over-population and, you know, probably, global warming and all sorts of other stuff too. But, no, instead the world is run by all those two-marshmallow-later bastards. But while all you two-marshmallow types were hanging around waiting for the second marshmallow, we one-marshmallow types have been studying international relations and learning Ninjutsu and stuff. So don’t count us out yet, is all I’m saying.


[1] OK, she might not put it quite like that because she has trouble pronouncing the word “marshmallow.” She pronounces it “marchmallow.” The word “fuck,” on the other hand, she enunciates with a bell-like clarity, so much so, that when the words “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” ring out from her lips in the playground, other parents’ eyes grow wide in wonder and astonishment at her articulacy.

[2] I should say here that it’s possible that this is actually your wine-and-children theory, which you shared with me right before I ordered that third ill-advised glass, in which case, I apologize for taking credit for your idea.

[3] It is hard to say, though, whether conceptions have been averted because of the theory’s intrinsic merit or simply because people tend to stop drinking for the night after this theory is shared with the assembled company.


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