I heard about the Marshmallow Experiment earlier this year on Radio 4. It took place in the 1960s and featured a small group of 5-year-old children who were then followed and interviewed at different milestones in their development, right up to adulthood. The experiment was looking at children’s ability to delay gratification and how that affected their development and attitude as adults.
The experiment was simple enough; the children were seated at tables and a marshmallow was placed in front of them. The teacher told them not to eat the marshmallow and then pretended to be called away. As she left the room she told them that if they were good and didn’t eat the marshmallow then she would give them a second one when she came back. The children were recorded on film and it was interesting how individuals dealt with the situation. Some moved away from the table or distracted themselves with other things. And some, of course, ate the marshmallows.
The psychologists predicted from this that those who ate the marshmallows were more likely to fail in life, be in debt, become criminals, and have broken marriages, whereas those able to distract themselves and wait would become much fitter citizens for society. The children were interviewed again several times and the predictions were more or less accurate.
The problem with all these kinds of experiments is that they predict the average and don’t take into account interventions. If I had been given that task when I was five years old not only would I have eaten my marshmallow but I’d also probably have eaten the ones left unattended by the kids who left their tables. So what does that say about me?
At five years old I was a disturbed child. I’d had a difficult birth and relationship with my mother, had later been usurped by a new baby and was whipped away to a fever hospital for having Scarlet Fever. There I was smacked by a nurse for soiling the bed (I was a townie and terrified by the noise of the countryside) who told me I was so bad my mother would leave me there, and when I got home my Gran told me whenever I was naughty that she loved my brother not me. And to top it all the man who made me feel protected, my granda, died. Nothing was safe or secure in my life so you bet I’d eat the damn marshmallows – I couldn’t trust they wouldn’t be taken away, let alone that I’d get another one! But I’ve made a success of my life, have never been to prison and only got into debt 6 years ago when my health failed and I couldn’t work. I can’t say the same about my relationships, so I guess they were right about that part.
Child psychology was in its infancy when I was growing up and my parents and theirs before them believed that putting a roof over your head and food on the table showed they loved you. They made sacrifices every day to keep you in shoes and winter coats and didn’t believe in sparing the rod to spoil the child. Children had to be seen and not heard and any food left on a plate was served up every meal till it was eaten. I still hate boiled cabbage. Yet my parents loved me, although at the time I didn’t know or believe that. I took refuge in Sunday School, then later started going to church by myself. My parents never went and as religion was something shoved down my dad’s throat when he was young there was a distinct absence in our house of anything Christian, except at Xmas and Easter.
“Faith is the ability to see the invisible, Trust is knowing the invisible exists” – Iyanla Vanzant
I clung on to the formality of church services because they were repetitive and made me feel safe. Just walking into a church I still feel the sanctity and security I always did. I believed fervently that someone somewhere must love me and Christ was as good a candidate as anyone. But by the time I was 16 we parted company. With the arrival of nuclear power tests and the potential to destroy the planet I had begun questioning everything, leaving no room in my adolescent head for faith or trust.
Since then it’s been a slow process to regain my faith in the Divine. I’ve dabbled in all sorts of philosophies and religions and none fit the bill for me. Yet I do have faith in the invisible power that draws me to live life to the full and know that it exists through the evidence of nature around me. How can anyone experience childbirth, see this amazing creature leave your body and insinuate itself into your heart and soul and not believe in a power greater. Just contemplating the intricacies of cells splitting, forming organs, faces, limbs, replicating genetic features and then positioning it so that when the time comes it can make its way out into the world—doesn’t that just blow your mind? And the fact there was perfect harmony in foodchains, where everything had its place and purpose, before we came along and spoilt things.
Shakespeare is another guy who knew what he was talking about –“There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (Hamlet V ii)
I wonder; perhaps there’s a psychological reason for calling myself an invisible woman…