In 1972, a team of psychologists led by Stanford University’s Walter Mischel turned a bag of marshmallows into one of the most influential pieces of social science research in American history. The experiment was simple: they put a single marshmallow in front of a child, told them they could have a second one if they waited 15 minutes before eating the first and left the room. Over time, their research showed that kids who were able to delay their gratification had better outcomes in life on everything from SAT scores to their body mass index.
After more than a year of dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s become increasingly clear many Canadians are failing their own version of the marshmallow test. Whether it’s the churches in Alberta that are refusing to abide by public health measures or the hundreds of young people that rioted over Montreal’s curfew on Sunday, we are seeing new data points emerge almost every day. Never mind the fact that vaccine doses are flooding into the country in growing numbers or that the end of this pandemic is clearly in sight. For far too many Canadians, the idea of delayed gratification doesn’t seem to resonate right now.
Not all Canadians are failing, mind you. In Atlantic Canada, governments and the people they govern have passed with flying colours. Because of their willingness to react strongly and quickly to COVID outbreaks, the provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador don’t have to contend with the renewed lockdowns and increased restrictions hitting people in the rest of Canada. Instead, residents in the Atlantic provinces get to go to restaurants and movies, enjoy the company of friends and engage in any number of other social opportunities that aren’t available to the rest of the country.
In fairness to the rest of the country, its shared failure on this particular test isn’t happening in a vacuum. The kids who participated in the Stanford experiment were on their own, but Canadians are being hectored and harassed by an array of bad-faith actors. Whether it’s far-right provocateurs like Rebel Media, anti-mask entrepreneurs on social media or elected officials like Ontario’s Randy Hillier and Alberta’s Drew Barnes, Canadians have had to contend with a growing chorus of people telling them they don’t have to wait for that second marshmallow — that the very act of waiting is somehow an affront to their rights and freedoms.
This is a monumental misunderstanding of what the Charter of Rights and Freedoms actually says. Its very first section, after all, spells out the conditions in which our rights and freedoms can be restricted. Unlike in the United States, our rights aren’t absolute or unimpeachable, and our constitution makes it clear there are circumstances — say, a pandemic — where one’s right to gather in an enclosed space can be overridden by everyone else’s right to health and safety. It is an appropriately Canadian compromise, even if it’s one that millions of people don’t seem to understand or appreciate.
When this pandemic is over, we ought to make time for a reckoning with our inability to wait for that second metaphorical marshmallow. The refusal of large numbers of people to trade long-term benefits for short-term conveniences doesn’t augur well for our shared future. Neither does their susceptibility to lies being peddled by those who put their own freedoms ahead of the safety and security of others.
But we don’t have to fail this test again. In subsequent years, the results of the so-called “marshmallow test” were refined by other researchers, who found that things like a child’s material circumstances explained as much as half of their performance. That’s one area where we can work to improve our performance on the society-wide marshmallow test the next time there’s a pandemic. After all, when you’re already struggling to make ends meet, delayed gratification isn’t really an option — and desperate times can trigger desperate reactions.
Going forward, we need to make sure that Canadians have the kinds of supports they need to make the right choices. And the forthcoming federal budget is a perfect opportunity to reinforce our shared social safety net with bold new measures, whether that’s a guaranteed income or more robust child-care funding. In the United States, we’re seeing a renewed purpose and ambition on the part of the government, with the Biden administration investing trillions of dollars into its economic recovery. Here in Canada, we can do the same thing — and put the country on a more stable foundation in the process.
After all, if fewer Canadians are living paycheque to paycheque the next time a crisis hits, maybe more of them will be willing to wait for that second marshmallow. Because if there’s one thing that’s certain here, it’s that there will be a next time. Whether we pass the test next time, on the other hand, is an open question.