What happens when something doesn’t pass your “gut instinct” test? You read an article, learn about a study or hear something presented as fact, yet it just doesn’t align with your previous knowledge or, perhaps, with your emotions. The two easy choices are to accept the new idea as more up-to-date and correct or to reject it as wrong. The harder choice is to delve deeper and explore the issue.
We constantly face this challenge concerning issues that matter. We can also list dozens of times that ‘experts’ were (intentionally or unintentionally) wrong, be they scientists or theologians, politicians or pundits, iconoclasts or a writer under the imprimatur of a venerated organization. Certainly, the expectation that an article in The New York Times or a statement by a lauded leader deserves an assumption of truth is now laughable rather than plausible.
When I had the chance to think about this on an issue that makes no difference in my life, I decided to test my own open-mindedness. I read an update on the famous “marshmallow test,” written by a researcher at the University of Santa Barbara, John Protzko. First popularized over fifty years ago, the marshmallow test involved an adult leaving a child alone in a room with a treat along with the promise that he or she would get more of the treat by waiting for the adult to return before consuming it. The oft-replicated study, along with follow-up analysis of SAT scores, is widely spoken of as showing that the ability to delay gratification when young correlates with greater success later in life.
Dr. Protzko analyzed over 30 of these studies, spanning decades, and contends that the data shows that children are actually more disciplined and able to wait longer today than in the past. He even polled 260 experts in child cognitive development and found that only 16% predicted the improvement. If polled, I would have been among the 84% expecting the opposite or, at best, no change. Surrounded by a culture of immediate gratification, why would children be more patient and disciplined than earlier generations? Was my gut right or should I now be newly enlightened?
I have previously mentioned the non-existent research team and highly limited budget, both in terms of time and money, under which my Musings operate. Detailed analysis of data was out of the question, despite the pride I still take in having gotten an ‘A’ in statistics in college. But I did spend a half-hour or so on my laptop to see where some probing would lead.
Not unexpectedly, I found that quite a few people had questions on methodology and I was pleasantly surprised to quickly find a number of responses from Mr. Protzko answering many of those queries. I also discovered that the so-called ‘marshmallow test’ early on included a prequel where children were alternatively given reason to trust or mistrust the adult giving the instructions. Not quite as innocent a test as it had seemed on the surface. I was left with quite a few unanswered questions of my own augmented by some I hadn’t thought of but others had. My conclusion is that the jury is still out. The idea still doesn’t ring true to me, I haven’t been convinced otherwise, but I am open to hearing more.
As I said, I have no skin in this game. Whether Dr. Protzko’s thesis is correct or incorrect affects nothing in my immediate life. But in an era when we are unceasingly bombarded by information and misinformation, I found this both an interesting and worthwhile exercise. Today, we have no choice but to skeptically examine almost everything we are told and, of course, to judge whether it conflicts with bedrock principles. Being wise is getting harder by the day.