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America Is Failing the Marshmallow Test

America Is Failing the Marshmallow Test

My heart leapt up when I learned that I can now order books online from my local library and pick them up curbside by reserving an appointed time.  Likewise, my heart leapt up again to learn that I will soon be able to reserve a time to swim laps at my local swimming pool (good medicine for my arthritic right hip), lots of protocols to keep that safe while trying to stay healthy.

And…when I also learn that COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations apparently increase as soon as people start congregating in large numbers in open spaces without the precautions of social distancing, I can go right into anxiety and heartbreak again. [Washington Post, June 10, 2020]

My friend Terri sent me an interesting May 29, 2020 article “We Need A Rational Approach to Re-Opening” from Harvard Business Review (that I can’t re-post here because of copyright restrictions) that focused on the granularity of the data that would differentiate which geographic areas have reduced the risk of COVID-19 exposure to be safe enough to re-open, and which haven’t.

Terri lives in Boise, Idaho, listed by a recent article in Forbes magazine as the safest city in America to re-open (small population, strict sheltering in place protocols). Terri can now go to her dentist and hairdresser; her husband can go bowling and see an acupuncturist.

The San Francisco Bay Area where I live is nowhere near that level of safety; most of the country is nowhere near that level of safety. There have been 83 deaths from COVID-19 in the entire state of Idaho as of last week. 4, 697 in the state of California. 115, 847 in the entire United States.

Which brings me to Paul Krugman’s article in the June 9, 2020 New York Times: The U.S. “America Fails the Marshmallow Test.” I remember the marshmallow test from psychology courses in graduate school. In 1972 Walter Mischel, a psychology professor at Stanford University, tested 4 year-old children for the capacity for delayed gratification by placing a marshmallow in front of them, instructing them that if they didn’t eat the marshmallow for 15 minutes, they could then have two marshmallows.  I remember watching videos of the kids looking away, turning around, singing, playing with their hair or clothes, anything to distract themselves from the marshmallow on a plate right in front of them. The follow-up studies to the original experiment seemed to indicate that young people who could resist eating the marshmallow did better later in life, in school, business, etc. Patience and delayed gratification being significant factors in that success.

Krugman is suggesting that casually re-opening public spaces before health authorities fully have the spread of the virus under control could be putting large and vulnerable segments of the population at risk again.

I’m concerned that people’s impatience to be “free” of the restrictions of sheltering in place will put us way behind the curve again of controlling the spread of the virus, delaying when it might be truly safe for all of us to come out from our bunkers, engage with our fellow human beings and move freely in the world again. Yes, people need to return to work; parents need schools, day care, summer camps to send their children to while they are trying to return to work. People need to find ways to create community and protest injustice right now, not at a time that would be more convenient. Yes, we’re all getting impatient, and chafing at being so rational about dealing with this pandemic (and every other -ism that is impacting people’s lives right now).

Yesterday’s post was about persevering in taking action in the face of so much upheaval and unraveling in our country right now.  [See Am I Doing Enough Right Now?]  Ironic that being patient, delaying the fun of the marshmallow, might be doing the right thing right now.

That patience would be based on a recognition of the needs and rights of our fellow human beings, just as responding to everything we’re dealing with right now is based on recognition of the needs and rights of our fellow human beings.  That works, and things don’t work when we don’t.

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