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.

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