Marshmallows and miscreants

It is sometimes said that a child who waits for two marshmallows is superior to one that eats a single marshmallow immediately. The notion is that this signifies delayed gratification, and is associated with positive life outcomes. Therefore, a child that waits is preferable to one who does not.

This is one of the great deceptions of our era.

Those who propagate such madness are clearly unacquainted with the marshmallow, an enticing but fundamentally unfulfilling treat that consists largely of sugar and corn starch.

Any sensible person—child or otherwise—would eat no more than one marshmallow at a sitting, knowing that eating two would result in an upset stomach or worse. At any rate, once you eat a marshmallow, you get the point.

I propose a different interpretation of the affair, where the child who eats their marshmallow immediately is understood—rightly—as the superior child. Such a child understands that it is better, when deciding between two equally desirable outcomes, to have it sooner than later. The child who receives their marshmallow at the earliest convenience of the experimenter can always decide to postpone their feast, while the inferior child who waits has no choice in the matter.

It may be objected that even if a child desires only one marshmallow, it is nevertheless most rational for them to wait for two. If they were to do so, it may be argued, they could sell the superfluous marshmallow or trade it for more desirable goods or services.

This, however, misses the mark. The supposed demonstration of delayed gratification has now become a test of business savvy. It is natural, if mistaken, in a consumer-driven society—if one can use that word—to assume that business sense is preferable to its absence.

However, we might discover that the child who lacks the business sense to sell the extra marshmallow simply does not wish to exchange their advantage of optionality—that is, their having the option to eat the marshmallow whenever they like—for the dubious advantage of an extra marshmallow (what are the likely proceeds of one marshmallow?) and the ill-advised and time-consuming vocation of marshmallow-peddling. The administration of a business cannot be taken lightly, and the superior child is cognizant of the complexity of the modern tax code.

One may accept all this, and still retort, “The inferior child in your case is clearly superior as they come to enjoy a better life!”

This too is a grave error. The superiority of a child’s character is independent of superior living standards. In a world as bereft of meaning and justice as ours, the most ingenious and virtuous among us often live desperate lives in squalor, while the most obsequious and nihilistic are supremely rewarded.

Even in utopian conditions, we must admit that genius often comes at a price. The child who eats their marshmallow immediately is well aware and receives meager consolation for this fact.

Update: After publication, Emily Austin pointed out that the child who delays their gratification for a greater quantity of M&M’s is superior, as one cannot consume too many of the popular paint-covered orbs. I regret the oversight and thank Emily for surfacing my error.

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