Beware of stories

Have you heard the story of the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment?

The setup is something like this. An adult researcher makes a deal with a 4-year-old. The kid can choose his favourite treat: a cookie, a marshmallow or a pretzel stick. The researcher would leave the treat in an empty room, free from distractions. The kid was free to eat the treat whenever he wished to. But if he could hold off for 15 minutes, the researcher would reward him with another treat.

All the while, the researchers observed the kids without their knowledge. 15 minutes can be agonizing wait when you’re four years old. Some kids covered their eyes or turned away from the treat. Others kicked the desk or tugged on their pigtails. A few stroked their treat as if it were a stuffed toy. And some would simply eat the treat as soon as the researcher left the room.

Here’s the interesting follow up. The kids who waited grew up to have better life outcomes – SAT scores, educational qualification, Body Mass Index score etc.

Why was that so? What led to those better outcomes?

The experimenters thought it was because these children had higher will-power. Will- power enabled these individuals to delay gratification and this led to better outcomes.

This sounded like a convincing explanation, and I had bought into it. But then it turns out that this was the wrong conclusion. It failed to replicate in follow-up experiments. The story of the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment was merely the story we all told ourselves.

The original experiment was conducted with 90 children, all from the nursery at Stanford. A follow-up experiment was conducted with 900 students from diverse backgrounds. Here, the results were controlled for income. The second study found that children with affluent backgrounds performed better in the test.

Another experiment included groups of children primed with a broken promise and a fulfilled promise before the test. It was found that the fulfilled promise group waited four times longer than the broken promise group.

Clearly, there were factors that played a more dominant role than will-power here – such as affluence and trust. Further, these factors are not independent of each other. A child growing up in affluence – in an environment of abundance could also end up having higher trust and more will-power.

As homo-sapiens, stories lie at the foundation of our very species. It was perhaps our ability to tell the best stories that ensured that ours was the dominant species among six other early human species. Stories help us learn and remember. They are an invaluable tool. But they come with a defect – the narrative fallacy.

This fallacy pushes us to explain facts by fitting narratives into them. Through the Stanford experiment, it was clear that children who waited for the second treat had better outcomes. This was a fact. But the narrative fallacy caused the researchers to explain this fact. They did this by assuming will-power was responsible for the success that followed. But in making that leap, the researchers had slipped up. It turns out there were other conditions at play.

Our minds love stories. Whenever we are faced with facts, our automatic response is to explain them with a believable story. But at times, this tendency can get in the way of objectivity. The real explanations can turn out to be far more complicated.

We ought to be wary of people who are great at crafting excellent stories. More often than not, these are our own minds.

Recommended reading: The narrative fallacy and what you can do about it

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