Resist the marshmallow

Last week, Moshe Vardi gave a talk called “Graduate Students, Marshmallows, and Academic Jobs”.

Cute title, I thought. But the marshmallow part wasn’t just there for cuteness, it was an integral part of the talk.

Vardi was referring to Walter Mischel’s 1972 Marshmallow experiment at Stanford: take a kid, offer them a marshmallow, and tell them that if they resist the temptation of eating it until you come back in the room, you’ll give them a second one. Repeat with another kid, and another.

The exercise is about deferred gratification. If you watch the video, those kids really earn their second marshmallow: the temptation is so strong, some have to physically restrain themselves from yielding to it.

But here is the interesting point: according to Mischel and a couple of others in a paper published 18 years after the original experiment—after they observed the kids as they grew up—”there is a correlation between the delay time in preschools and the cognitive and academic competence” of these kids in adolescence.

So maybe it’s a good idea to train yourself to resist immediate gratification.

This applies to problem solving at various levels: when you resist the urge of looking for solutions to your problem before you’ve understood its root causes, you increase your chances of finding a better solution; when you aim at optimizing—whether  for coming up with root causes or solutions—instead of satisficing, you come up with more innovative answers; or when you strive to uncover yet more evidence before failing to reject one of your hypotheses, you improve your chances to avoiding erroneous conclusions.

The point is that if you stick with your problem a bit longer than what you’re comfortable with, if you commit to consider alternative answers—even crazy ones—you might find something of value. This goes back to what Steven Sample—the former president of the University of Southern California—calls free thinking: “The key to thinking free is first to allow your mind to contemplate really outrageous ideas, and only subsequently apply the constraints of practicality, practicability, legality, cost, time and ethics. Thinking free is an unnatural act; not one person in a thousand can do it without enormous effort.” Sample further describes how he developed a device that is now used in hundreds of millions of home appliances worldwide: “My favorite way to stimulate the kind of thinking free is to force myself to contemplate absolutely outrageous and impossible ways to address a particular problem. For example, in 1967 I was struggling to invent a new way to control a dishwasher… At one point I lay on the floor and forced myself to image hay bales, elephants, planets, ladybugs, sofas, microbes, newspapers, hydroelectric dams, French horns, electrons and trees, each in turn and in various combinations controlling a dishwasher.”

Of course, this is not an absolute approach: you will eventually need to reach a conclusion. I’m not advocating to embrace paralysis by analysis; but the point is there is value in sticking with the problem a little longer: go find that really unlikely root cause or that crazy solution because, in the process, you might find something truly innovative.

In summary can come up with various analogies to say the same thing (“push, push, push”; “go the extra mile”; etc.) but none will be as good as Moshe’s: Resist the marshmallow.

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