White Privilege and the Stanford Marshmallow Study

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White privilege today is inextricably bound to our society’s feelings about morality and justice. In fact, a given set of circumstances can be viewed in diametrically opposite ways: as an example of injustice (white privilege) or as an example of justice (good things happen to good people).

Stanford University is known for many things, including two famous psychology experiments.  The first (so well-known that a movie was made about it) is the Stanford Prison Experiment.  The second, but only slightly less well known is this:  The Stanford Marshmallow Study.

This study on delayed gratification was conducted by Stanford Professor Walter Mischel.  In the experiment, pre-school aged children were offered a choice.  They were offered one marshmallow, which they could choose to accept immediately (or one pretzel — for convenience I will just use “marshmallow” in the rest of this article).  Alternatively, the children could choose to wait some amount of time, at the end of which, they would get two marshmallows.

The study, at least as you will hear it repeated, becomes a morality tale.  Children that waited for the two marshmallows ended up having better measurable outcomes later in life.  Better SAT scores, better BMI, they became CEOs, etc.  This was scientific confirmation of the story we all have heard about the ant and the grasshopper.  Deferring gratification is a moral virtue!  It will get you further in life!  Post hoc ergo propter hoc!  Hard work and deferred gratification, that’s what made America great.  (Some snark there.)

Marshmallows are a proxy for bigger decisions of course. I am at a point in my life where I look back every now and then and wonder why I made certain decisions — decisions that might have had better outcomes if I had just waited a bit longer for a better opportunity.  I was thinking particularly about my first teaching position.  It was okay, but if I could have waited 6 more months there may have been better opportunities available.

Through the lens of the Stanford Marshmallow Study, I deserve to have a poorer outcome.  I didn’t wait for a better job to come along.  I took the first one that came along because of a flaw in my character.

As I was thinking about my career decision, I projected myself back to preschool and imagined what I would have done if I was offered the choice of one marshmallow right away or two later.  I would have without a doubt taken the one marshmallow immediately.  And I’ll tell you why.  I would not have trusted that there would have actually been two marshmallows later.  (Note.  I wouldn’t have eaten the whole marshmallow either — having the marshmallow in my hands would however have given me agency to have and enjoy that marshmallow on my own terms.  I would have hoarded it for later.)

The reason I would not have trusted that I would get two marshmallows later is that, as a person of color, I know that the system doesn’t work for me. I knew that I was being treated differently even when I was a kid — and I knew why.

The mythos around the marshmallow study is an attractive one for those that benefit from it. Kids with strong moral fiber will delay gratification and will grow up to be adults with strong moral fiber.  And adults with strong moral fiber will be more successful than those without because they deserve to be successful.  Good people deserve to have good things happen to them.

However, I claim that this mythos is flawed and that it is rather yet another illustration of how white privilege is fundamentally woven into our society.  In fact, I claim that white privilege is inextricably wound into concepts of morality and justice.  For those who benefit from white privilege (and who don’t want to see it), this makes white privilege completely invisible.  The benefits of it are simply the results of how a just and moral universe works.

If we look at the marshmallow choice not as a selector for kids who delay gratification (good kids, deserve success) versus those who don’t (bad kids, don’t deserve success), but rather as a selector for kids who expect the system to treat them well and those who expect the system to treat them poorly.  The former have no problem waiting for the two marshmallows because they know they will get them.  The latter mistrust that they will get two marshmallows later, so they take the one now.

At least one follow-on study at the University of Rochester confirmed this second hypothesis.  Children were divided into two groups.  The first group was given a broken promise before the marshmallow was offered (establishing that the tester was unreliable). In this (and even in previous studies by Mischel), the belief that two marshmallows would be delivered was an important determinant in the choice to defer gratification.

Or to summarize from my own experience. If you have had the system work for you, then you expect the system to work for you — and you can have confidence that delaying gratification will be a good strategy.  If you have had the opposite experience, then you will not trust the system to work for you.  You won’t have confidence that you can delay gratification and you will make sub-optimal choices. The defect here is not in the character of those who don’t delay gratification — the defect is in a society that disadvantages particular groups and then justifies its actions by asserting that those groups are disadvantaged because of some kind of moral (or psychological) shortcoming.

This system sustains and perpetuates itself with a corollary mythos. If you obtain something because you deserve it, then you also deserve to keep it.  In fact, you are morally justified in keeping it and it is morally wrong for anyone (e.g., a progressive tax system) to take it away from you.  You will hear variants of this all the time, e.g., “I worked hard for what I got.”

It isn’t even necessarily the case that people who say things like this are simply greedy and trying to outright take from others. Rather in a world view that says you deserve what you got because you are good and hard-working — a political party that reinforces that story must also be the party of virtue. They are just advocating for what is naturally and obviously right and moral.  The implicit unfairness of a rigged system has been successfully disguised as fairness.

This is what is going to make white privilege so hard to dislodge. The beneficiaries of white privilege see justice and morality instead of white privilege — and they see attacks on white privilege as an attack on justice and morality. Progressive tax?  Immoral.  Reparations?  Immoral.  Affirmative action?  Immoral.  Desegregation?  Immoral.  Naturally, some people deliberately take advantage of this situation, but I expect by and large people are just oblivious to how insidiously white privilege has been disguised, and that they think they are simply trying to be fair.  The human psyche is complicated of course, and people will often see what is in their best interest to see.

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