Troy Clarkson

I love Oreo cookies. I’m still having a great internal debate about which is my favorite. Just when I’m leaning toward the thought that there’s nothing quite like a traditional Double-Stuf for a sweet treat, I remember that the vanilla version of the Oreo is pretty splendid as well. Recently, at the urging of a friend, I tried the lemon Double-Stuf, and it did not disappoint. My inner conflict continues. If someone put all three in front of me and told me I could have only one, I’m not sure what I’d do, other than perhaps stuff two of them in my pocket and insist that there was only one on the table.

Moreover, if someone put an Oreo cookie in front of me, told me they were going to leave the room and if I didn’t eat the cookie while they were gone, I could have two more, I’m similarly not sure what I would do. After all, it is a “creamy lickin’ chocolate sensation” as the jingle so often reminded me during my childhood.

How many of us would delay the gratification of tasting the inside of an Oreo to fulfill the promise of two in the near future?

It’s a vexing and interesting question, and one that has actually been studied over and over for the last half century. Beginning with a series of studies by psychologist Walter Mischel in the 1960s and 1970s, an extensive body of work exists on the topics of self-control and delayed gratification. Mischel studied preschool-age children who attended Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School between 1968 and 1972.

The children were taken individually into a room and asked to identify a snack they enjoyed, such as a marshmallow (or perhaps an Oreo cookie) and provided one on a table. They were then instructed that if they could wait several minutes, someone would return with another treat. The children were observed during the waiting period, then followed for years after. Mischel found that the children who delayed the immediacy of the treat and instead waited for the larger reward were more successful later in life; they tended to be more academically and socially skilled.

Mischel’s conclusions have been debated for decades since, but his research laid the foundation for extensive further study and analysis. In a journal article published by the National Academy of Sciences in 2011 entitled “Behavioral and neural correlates of delay of gratification 40 years later,” the researchers suggested that “The ability to resist temptation in favor of long-term goals is an essential component of individual, societal, and economical success…” and further noted that, “resisting temptation in favor of long-term goals is important for individual, societal, and economic functioning.”

So, more than 40 years of research appear to support the notion that if we can resist the immediate temptation of the marshmallow or the Oreo cookie, life will be better in the long run—for us and for others as well. The same holds true for our emergence from the current period of stay-at-home and physical distancing due to the coronavirus.

As we prepare to gradually and carefully open back up our institutions and our economy, it is imperative to resist the marshmallow. As difficult as it is, the vigilance that we have shown with physical distancing, mask wearing, and carefully attending to hygiene and our interactions with others must be the foundation of opening back up our shops, our beaches, and our economy. We are all thirsting for the much-needed gratification of a hug, the critically needed stimulus of a summer season, and the tug toward a sense of normalcy. However, if we grab the marshmallow and just dive back into life as it was, we seriously risk plunging back into a second wave of infections, hospitalizations, and yes, deaths. That’s not politics. That’s not conjecture. That’s science.

My fellow Falmouth Cares panelist and tech guru Gary Vacon looks at it this way: “We all know that the right thing to do is social distancing, face masks, and serious attention to hygiene. We all know we should isolate when sick or exposed to someone who is sick. We all know you can be asymptomatic and still shed the virus. So, this is not about personal freedom, it’s about how much each of us care about each other. Your decision to comply or not impacts everyone you contact. Ultimately, the success or failure of this opening experiment will depend on our collective human decency. Adding to the difficulty is delay. You do something wrong today, and three or four weeks later you’ll see an uptick in COVID numbers. It is easy to imagine a scenario where we go back into lockdown. The impact on our economy and our collective psyche would be unimaginable. Can we wait for the second marshmallow?”

And that is the simple but critical question for all of us.

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