I prefer marshmallows to Brexit

Brenig Davies argues that a famous experiment may help us understand voter choice in the EU referendum

One will search assiduously to find marshmallows and Brexit in the same sentence (except here). Indeed the said sentence might not even exist elsewhere. But the results of the Marshmallow Experiment may have a bearing on opinions and Brexit related emotions.

They firmly reflect opposing opinions about the economy’s future, societal changes, employment practices, law-making powers and so on. Brexit fills newspaper pages much more than marshmallows. But a famous experiment with marshmallows may have a greater influence on our view of Brexit than first appears. The linkage may be found in the notion of delayed gratification. 

The term and notion of delayed gratification was named in the 1960s and early 1970s by lead psychologist, Walter Mischel, then a professor at Stanford University. In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately (closely related to Brexit Remainers) or two small or large rewards later if they waited for a short period, approximately fifteen minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned (closely related to Brexit Leavers).The reward was sometimes marshmallow, or sometimes a biscuit. In follow-up studies, the researchers found that children who were able to wait longer for the preferred rewards tended to have better life outcomes, as measured by educational attainment and general well being, to which might be added, in Brexit context, a more productive economy and all that follows from that.

The term ‘delayed gratification’ is now more commonly called ‘deferred gratification’.

Now, I certainly do not claim a direct association for the assertion that follows (though no doubt academics would provide such tentative evidence): the assertion is whether a ‘Leaver’ or ‘Remainer’ is principally influenced by their natural, or unwitting preference for pursuing short or long term goals. They could of course be both, with the issue or task being a dominant influence on one’s propensity to Leave or Remain. Therefore does one have a predisposition toward short or long term goals when considering government policies, and Brexit in this case? It could be neither, of course, due to an understandable and possibly disinterest in politics, especially the current endless news on Brexit negotiations, when one’s preoccupations and hobbies, for example, lay elsewhere.

The language used by one or the other of Brexit predisposition does provide a degree of empirical evidence to be reasonably secure in listing typical claims made by politicians, commentators and experts with strong view either way.

Deferred gratifiers – Leavers – may be detected in such terms and beliefs through:

  • Safeguarding sovereignty
  • Free to make our own laws
  • Released from unelected policy makers
  • Take back control of our borders
  • Free of the EU custom union and single market

Short-term gratifiers -Remainers – may be detected in the use of such terms as:

  • Access to one of the world’s leading trading blocks.   
  • Free movement of people 
  • Access to an ever increasing need for highly skilled workers
  • University research collaboration
  • Student exchange programmes

The list may readily be extended to suit the arguments and beliefs (if not hopes) of ‘leavers’ and ‘remainers’.

Implicit in the beliefs and hopes of ‘leavers’ is that the benefits will eventually accrue as time goes by. The benefits will not in most cases be immediate, apart from, perhaps, control of ‘our boarders’. But the economic and concomitant social pain may be worth putting up with for a ‘better life outcome’ eventually.

Implicit in the beliefs of ‘remainers’ is that short-term gain will avoid unnecessary, and safely maintain economic perpetuation. Access to the single market is maintained along with a growing custom union, The European Court of Human Rights protecting the rights of each and every individual is a highly valued safeguard of citizens’ rights, and provides on critical example perpetuation.

This short essay will not, realistically, change anyone’s view on whether we should stay or leave the EU. Hopefully it will be read as discursive and just might highlight that within the day-to-day rough and tumble of ‘In’ or ‘Out’ arguments there just may be a couple of subliminal emotions influencing assertions and selective evidence. For instance, a recent example of ‘deferred gratification’ may be inferred from research recently published by Professor Roger Scully in his Cardiff University Blog 26.10.17: ‘Our research into what the public think about Brexit also included the first detailed qualitative study of working-class Leave voters in the south Wales valleys. …Many Leave voters expect that Brexit may cause short-term problems, but they expect it to be worth it in the longer-term.

The regional polling results in last year’s EU referendum provides no clear answer to the claimed goals of the shiny political uplands of deferred gratification, or to the safe short term goals of remaining in the EU; both of which are so ill defined and exaggerated in many instances, in and by the contradictory claims during the referendum campaign. In this current stage of Brexit negotiations with positions that seem neither to offer, with any confidence, the gains of deferred gratification, or those of short term gains. It will be both.


All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Brenig Davies is a governor in primary and FE settings, a Reader for the Queen's Award in Further and Higher Education, and a director of Agored Cymru.

22 thoughts on “I prefer marshmallows to Brexit

  1. I too prefer the ‘instant’ gratification of a marshmallow ‘remain’. In the experiment with mice did the researcher give them an electric shock every time they tried to access the marshmallow? Did the progeny of these brave ‘deferring’ mice grow up to be fierce rats with big whiskers? Did the trauma of marshmallow withdrawal lead to fighting and self foot gnawing?

  2. An interesting comparison, but isn’t there a small flaw in relation to the certainty of the outcomes? In the case of the marshmallow experiment to which you refer, the offer was between the certainty of a short term reward and the certainty of a larger long term reward. I’d suggest that, in the context of Brexit, there is no equivalent certainty about either the one short term marshmallow nor the long term double helping of marshmallows (although the short term is usually easier to predict than the long term).

    Brexiteers may also suffer from a tendency to believe, of course, that they can both eat the single marshmallow now and have the extra marshmallows later.

  3. Full marks for finding a new angle on ‘Brexit’ and for the acknowledgement, still rare among ‘Remainers,’ that those of us who voted ‘Leave’ did so in full awareness of the short-term difficulties and in the hope of longer term benefits.

    It is not so much expecting marshmallows as being sick of eating dirt and being told it was marshmallows.

  4. Before Brexiteers congratulate themselves on their superior ability to delay gratification and the delivery of extra marshmallows perhaps it would be useful to examine Walter Mischel’s conclusions.
    “He proposed what he calls a “hot-and-cool” system to explain why willpower
    succeeds or fails.
    The cool system is cognitive in nature. It’s essentially a thinking system,
    incorporating knowledge about sensations, feelings, actions and goals —
    reminding yourself, for instance, why you shouldn’t eat the marshmallow. While
    the cool system is reflective, the hot system is impulsive and emotional. The hot
    system is responsible for quick, reflexive responses to certain triggers — such as
    popping the marshmallow into your mouth without considering the long-term
    implications. If this framework were a cartoon, the cool system would be the
    angel on your shoulder and the hot system, the devil.”

    My experience of the referendum was of leavers who were likely to be “hot” and remainers who were likely to be “cool”.

    It would be interesting to know what Walter Mischel would have made of children who insisted that getting no marshmallows was better than getting less extra marshmallows than they had been expecting.

  5. CapM: “Before Brexiteers congratulate themselves on their superior ability to delay gratification…” In fact, you will note that we have been far too modest to do anything of the sort – but since you mention it…

    On the hot and cool point, it is probably true of everyone who has engaged in any debate since the time of Socrates that he has viewed his own side as exclusively rational and reflective, and the other side as exclusively impulsive and emotional.

    The truth is that human beings are not Vulcans. We like to think of ourselves as logical, but our feelings always influence our positions. That applies to all sides of all debates, and it is not necessarily a bad thing. Given that we are almost always trying dealing with incomplete information, gut instinct is often a sound evolutionary response to uncertainty.

  6. The article is not about the debate on membership of the EU but the instant or delayed gratification associated with how a person cast their vote.
    I think the idea that leavers were inclined to vote based of delayed gratification is very far from having been justified and now you’ve suggested a genetic basis for those who supported Brexit!

    We’ll at least it keeps minds off the reality of the consequences that are unfolding.

  7. CapM, the last comment made only a general point and mentioned ‘Brexit’ only when quoting you. As for the unfolding consequences, the only surprise so far is that the EU officials have proved even more self-centred than wethiught.

  8. “the only surprise so far is that the EU officials have proved even more self-centred than wethiught.”
    I assume that when you say “we” you are speaking on behalf of those who voted Leave. That is those who were convinced that Brexit would be quick, easy and the outcome would favour the UK.

    The reality is that the members of the EU are directing negotiations in a way that reflects what they consider to be their own, rather than the UK’s best interests this and has come as no surprise to us Remainers.

  9. CapM: it was obviously never going to be easy; it can still be quick; and whether it favours the UK depends on the decisions we make now.

    The problem is that the EU is acting in accordance with its own interests rather than its members.’ Practically everyone agrees that some firm of trade deal is in the interests of both Britain and Europe, but the EU is gatekeeper to any such deal and is insisting on what is in effect a bribe, to cover the hole in its own finances, before it starts doing its job.

  10. “The problem is that the EU is acting in accordance with its own interests rather than its members”
    The EU is its member states. The member states direct the Commission to proceed in accordance with their own interests.
    “…to cover the hole in its own finances”
    The finances are the finances of the member states of the EU.
    The EU member states have taken the line that future UK EU trade is not their primary Brexit concern making the Brexiteers much vaunted winning card near impotent.
    Overall this means that the UK is surprisingly (to them)the supplicant in the negotiations. Hence the cries about being bullied and unfair etc.

    The problem is that Brexiteers can’t /don’t want to adapt to this unforeseen (by them) situation as it appears they can’t/don’t want to even accept that it is the reality.

  11. CapM: we agree on one point – the UK is being surprisingly supplicant in the negotiations.

    A firmer line is required. There is a clear division between the interests of the EU itself and its member states. The former is obsessed with the hole in its own budget – a separate thing altogether from the budgets of the member States – while it is in the interests of the latter to maintain their huge trade surplus with the UK. Our best strategy in the negotiations is to exploit that division. It is a matter of great regret that the Government seems to have lost its nerve since the General Election.

  12. We don’t agree on that point. I can’t fathom out why you think we do. You may be surprised that the UK is the supplicant in the negotiations I am not.
    It was inevitable that the UK would be the supplicant regardless of how “strong and stable” the UK government was and what negotiating geniuses were send in. That is because of what the EU is.

    Of course if one imagines a type of EU that suits one’s Brexit narrative then it’s also possible to imagine cakes and street parties and a returning UK negotiation team in an open top bus being driven thought London to the wild acclaim of cheering crowds.
    And if the imaginary cakes, street parties and parade don’t materialize it will not be because Imagineers mistakenly imagined the EU was something that it is not but because someone is to blame – “It is a matter of great regret that the Government seems to have lost its nerve”

  13. As the Ford and Toyota engine plants are run down, Tata closes in Port Talbot, Holyhead port loses half its business and Welsh farmers are locked out of Europe and compete with frozen New Zealand lamb, Argentinian beef and chlorinated chicken from the US, we shall be waiting eagerly for the long-term benefits of leaving the EU. A trade deal like Canada is irrelevant. Manufacturing plants in the UK operate just-in-time processes that often require literally hundreds of lorries every day arriving at their gates as 70 per cent of components arrive from Europe and 80 per cent of output goes there. Over decades, the single market has led to our economy and that of Europe becoming closely entwined with supply chains ignoring national borders. Now all of that will be disrupted, whether there are tariffs or not. The financial services industry which has provided a disproportionate amount of the tax revenue of UK governments will grow much more slowly as international banks and other firms relocate some staff to the continent. Global Britain? We export more to Ireland than we do to China, India and Brazil put together. Germany from inside the EU exports more than three times as much to China as we do. Leaving the EU will mean we lose trade agreements with some 50 other countries that we have now and will have to start renegotiating from a position of weakness.
    Faced with those certainties and hoping for something unspecified to turn up in the long run, while singing “there’ll always be an England” is an extreme form of delusion. As Michael Bloomberg said, Brexit is the dumbest piece of self-harm any developed country has ever perpetrated on itself. Enjoy!

  14. CapM, it was your own words that gave the impression that you were making a perceptive point. Apologies if this is not the case.

    Some form of reciprocal trade deal is obviously in the interests of both parties, but it is even more obviously in the interest of the party running a huge trade surplus. The EU negotiators are putting this in danger for the sake of relatively small sums for its own budget. This selfish, inward-looking attitude confirms how right we were to leave.

    The Government is the Government and therefore responsible. It has not asked for advice. In the unlikely event of it doing so, it would be told that offering to pay any claims not backed by clear legal entitlement was bound to lead to further claims and was therefore a huge tactical error. Its position should now be that it will not offer another penny. The EU will therefore have a straight choice between what has already been offered and nothing at all. Even that offer should be time limited and conditional.

  15. If only the EU were playing the way Brexiteers insist they should eh.
    In that world things would be so different to what they are here.

  16. JWR : self centred or not, that’s just trivial. The reality is of massive economic disruption and loss, as I merely sketched above.

  17. Mr Tredwyn, as the original article pointed, we are quite prepared for short-term difficulties – which have so far been a lot less than predicted for this point by the likes of the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer. Scaremongering did not work last year and it does not frighten us now.

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