Eat Your Marshmallow – it doesn’t condemn you to failure #psychology #science #scientific #experiment

roasting a marshmallow over a campfire

I never liked marshmallows much – it’s more fun to incinerate them

Psychology is having a replication crisis. Iconic studies are falling apart when researchers try the same experiment using improved methods and find… nothing’s there.

It turns out, a lot of psychology that’s entered modern culture is based on small studies of Western college students – hardly representatives of all humanity or even all Americans. Adding college employees and their families as subjects still offers a very limited sample.

Consider the marshmallow test. Young children who resist eating a marshmallow when promised, if they wait, they’ll get two, are supposedly on the road to successful adult lives.

Ultimately, a new study finds limited support for the idea that being able to delay gratification leads to better outcomes. Instead, it suggests that the capacity to hold out for a second marshmallow is shaped in large part by a child’s social and economic background—and, in turn, that that background, not the ability to delay gratification, is what’s behind kids’ long-term success.

If your pantry is empty or the adults in your life have trouble caring for you, then eating that marshmallow now instead of waiting makes sense.

Let’s not just pick on psychology. Medicine, economics, marketing, sports, and hydrology all need to clean up their act.

Table of percentages of experiments replicatedSometimes, outright fraud has been involved. Replication in science is good at weeding out fraud, but it takes time. Part of the problem seems to be that journals like to publish exciting new studies, not yeoman replications. Ditto universities and anyone else funding research. It’s a situation so-sad-it’s-funny: in one Big Bang Theory episode, Leonard’s mother disses him for replicating someone else’s work.

But without reproducible results, you don’t truly have science.

More classic experiments fail replication, click this link.

  • Stanford Prison Experiment
  • Robbers Cave
  • Milgram electroshock test
  • Our brains can be subtly “primed” with thoughts and actions
  • Merely smiling caused people to become happier
  • Stereotype threat

Not all questionable studies are old:

  • “Narcissism epidemic” among millennials

Disproved studies are often retracted. Such news doesn’t make it into the popular press very often, but you can find more here.

I love science – it’s the best way to learn about the physical world we share. But as Stephen Jay Gould said, science must be understood as a gutsy human enterprise.

Human weaknesses follow us all, but the method will lead us true if we let it. That’s not always easy, but it’s right.

3 thoughts on “Eat Your Marshmallow – it doesn’t condemn you to failure #psychology #science #scientific #experiment

  1. There was a wonderful book a few years back called “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that” by Ben Goldacre. Lot’s of case studies of science done wrong, either through laziness or intentional fraud, and also lots of examples of the popular press just misreporting things.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The popular press magnifies the problem, either over-simplifying or getting things down-right wrong. Health and diet seem to especially suffer, which leads so many people to saying that “science” changes its mind every few months. But we have to rely on someone interpreting for us – good science-communicators are so valuable

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Humans are not as smart as they think they are. We have confused talents with intelligence. A species of even moderate intelligence would not find itself under the threat of self extinction from any number of various reasons. Measuring intelligence is subject to the intelligence of the one taking the measure. The time is at hand to test, testing and to test the testers testing the test. And so on.

    Liked by 1 person

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