The poor man’s definition for behavioral economics is that a bunch of people think it’s interesting how people make terrible and irrational decisions in a world built upon the assumption that we make good decisions. The poorer man’s version is: people don’t make good decisions and we want to know why.
One of the most famous studies of behavioral economics occur ed back in the 1970s. It’s become known as the marshmallow study. It was a study of children and deferred gratification. This video explains what happened:
Essentially, children that couldn’t resist the temptation for the one marshmallow showed some pretty standard measurements of being crappier adults later on. Because they were children, many have thought that this helps to explain that we do have a natural behavior to focus on the short term and ignore the long term. But it takes a certain will in order to delay gratification for greater rewards later. The implications of studies like this help explain everything from obesity to people not saving their money.
But this year the study was given a twist to test the nature and nurture theme.
This time the children were primed with either a trusting or distrusting situation. A researcher promised to bring back some cool art supplies. In some cases she did, in others she didn’t. This lead to the children either trusting or not trusting the promise that if they wait for a second marshmallow they can have both.
Perhaps unsurprisingly to this audience, the children primed to not trust the researcher were more likely to eat the marshmallow than the children that did trust the researcher. Masticate a marshmallow yourself on that for a second.
Ignore all the behavioral implications that these studies show about our inability to save for the future as a adult. Just think about the child. We all know a child can grow up to be a messed up adult because they had a crappy environment. But it’s one thing to say it was because their dad was never there. It’s another to demonstrate how a broken trust can influence their decision making at such a young age.
As is the case with such studies people tend to blow them way out of proportion. What is needed are further examples of this behavior. Researchers should see if this decision making can be replicated in different ways breaking trust in various manners. But hopefully not on the same kids. In the mean time of course, be a good parent and your kid is likely to be a good kid.