The marshmallow test is a famous psychological experiment that tests children’s willingness to delay gratification. Children are offered a marshmallow, but told that they can have a second marshmallow if they’re willing to wait 15 minutes before eating the first one. Claims that children with the willpower to hold out do much better in life haven’t held up well, but the experiment is still a useful metaphor for many choices in life, both by individuals and by larger groups.
One way to think about the Covid-19 pandemic is that it poses a kind of marshmallow test for society.
At this point, there have been enough international success stories in dealing with the coronavirus to leave us with a clear sense of what beating the pandemic takes. First, you have to impose strict social distancing long enough to reduce the number of infected people to a small fraction of the population. Then you have to implement a regime of testing, tracing and isolating: quickly identifying any new outbreak, finding everyone exposed, and quarantining them until the danger is past.
This strategy is workable. South Korea has done it. New Zealand has done it.
But you have to be strict and you have to be patient, staying the course until the pandemic is over, not giving in to the temptation to return to normal life while the virus is still widespread. So it is, as I said, a kind of marshmallow test.
And America is failing that test.
New U.S. cases and deaths have declined since early April, but that’s almost entirely because the greater New York area, after a horrific outbreak, has achieved huge progress. In many parts of the country — including our most populous states, California, Texas, and Florida — the disease is still spreading. Overall, new cases are plateauing and may be starting to rise. Yet state governments are moving to reopen anyway.
This is a very different story from what’s happening in other advanced countries, even hard-hit nations like Italy and Spain, where new cases have fallen dramatically. It now looks likely that by late summer we’ll be the only major wealthy nation where large numbers of people are still dying from Covid-19.
Why are we failing the test? It’s easy to blame Donald Trump, a man-child who would surely gobble down that first marshmallow, then try to steal marshmallows from other kids. But America’s impatience, its unwillingness to do what it takes to deal with a threat that can’t be beaten with threats of violence, runs much deeper than one man.
It doesn’t help that Republicans are ideologically opposed to government safety-net programs, which are what make the economic consequences of social distancing tolerable; as I explain in today’s column, they seem determined to let crucial emergency relief expire far too soon. Nor does it help that even low-cost measures to limit the spread of Covid-19, above all wearing face masks (which mainly protect other people), have been caught up in our culture wars.
America in 2020, it seems, is too disunited, with too many people in the grip of ideology and partisanship, to deal effectively with a pandemic. We have the knowledge, we have the resources, but we don’t have the will.
.. When she took over the institution, banks and companies were moving $5 billion out of the country every month, and inflation topped 7%.She shut down 70 banks in her first year.
.. Ms. Nabiullina stopped a longstanding policy of spending billions of dollars from the country’s reserves to try to prop up the ruble. In December 2014, with the ruble continuing to fall, the central bank nearly doubled its key lending rate to 17% at an emergency late-night meeting... The rate increase restored calm to markets but strangled the country’s consumer-fueled growth. The country’s emerging middle class, which had become used to foreign vacations and European cars, is still feeling the effects of the ruble’s collapse... Since she took office, she has halved the number of Russian banks, shutting down about 440 lenders. She has reduced capital outflows by about 50% to $2.5 billion a month... Many of the banks she closed had been considered untouchable, analysts said. Some, such as Promsviazbank, counted lawmakers and state-company executives among its shareholders and held money for national oil companies and the Orthodox Church... Others, like Bank Sovetskiy, had served political objectives, providing banking services in Crimea, the Ukrainian region the Kremlin annexed in 2014.
.. When the central bank took over Yugra last June following repeated warnings, it said it found a $600 million deficit in its balance sheet masked with bad loans. Just hours before the bankrupt bank’s license was due to expire, the prosecutor’s office ordered a halt to the closure, calling the bank “a financially stable credit organization.” Ms. Nabiullina rejected the order... “It was a test of will, and she won,” said banking analyst Mr. Lukashuk... In January, inflation hit a record low for the post-Soviet period of 2.2%, a result of Ms. Nabiullina’s decision to keep interest rates high after the Crimea sanctions. Some tycoons have urged a faster reduction... Still, she has struggled to regulate Russia’s lesser, underperforming state-owned banks, whose executives often treat them as fiefs, analysts said. These banks are kept afloat by constant injections of state funds, which the executives have funneled into unrelated assets ranging from supermarkets to railroad cars... Almost a trillion rubles of public capital, about $16 billion at today’s rate, went to just three state-owned banks—
- Gazprombank and
in the first four years of Ms. Nabiullina’s central-bank term, according to Fitch Ratings. All are still saddled with bad debts or illiquid assets.
.. Her modest economic forecasts have consistently lagged behind Mr. Putin’s goals, which she said can only be achieved through deep, unpopular changes to the system.
Even if the price of oil rose to $100, from around $65 today, she said, “it’s very unlikely that our economy can grow above 1.5% to 2%” a year.
Here are the three most important pitfalls and success factors we’ve discovered. Our research shows that these three elements can make you and your loved ones ten times more likely to succeed.
Mistake #1: We attack people with information.
We assume that, if the person only knew what we knew, they’d change. The problem is, often they already know what we know, plus more.
.. Solution: People need to examine their own narrative.
When you’re trying to influence people who need motivation, but not information, don’t offer more information. Instead, work to create a safe environment where they can explore motivations they already have. People need to re-examine their narrative, especially any self-defeating or clever stories they are telling themselves to justify the status quo.
- “What is it that makes you even consider changing?”
- “If things worked out exactly the way you want, what would be different?
- “What are the pluses and minuses of changing or not changing?”
- “If this change were easy, would you want to make it? What makes it hard?”
Mistake #2: We fail to see why we’re stuck.
Getting someone to make a commitment to change is not the same as getting them to actually change. The problem is that people overestimate the power of their own willpower. They fail to see the risks in front of them. So, they put their heart and soul into an effort, but it’s not enough. They are tripped up by obstacles they never anticipated.
We need to recognize the hidden influences around us, the influences that are keeping us stuck. Once we see them, we can deal with them. We group influences into six sources: three that motivate and three that enable.
- Personal Motivation ..
- Social Motivation ..
- Structural Motivation ..
- Personal Ability ..
- Social Ability ..
- Structural Ability ..
Most stubborn problems persist because of unseen or overlooked influences that are keeping us stuck. Once we see them, we can change them. However, if we don’t change them, we’ll remain stuck.
.. Another mistake is to have favorite solutions, and to use them in isolation. For example, we assume carrots and sticks will solve every problem, or that training or technology will. As a result, we create one-sided solutions that address only a few of the obstacles that are keeping us stuck.
The root of violence is the illusion of separation—from God, from Being itself, from being one with everyone and everything. When you don’t know you are connected and one, you will invariably resort to some form of violence to get the dignity and power you lack.
.. When you can become little enough, naked enough, and honest enough, then you will ironically find that you are more than enough. At this place of poverty and freedom, you have nothing to prove and nothing to protect. Here you can connect with everything and everyone. Everything belongs. This cuts violence at its very roots before there is even a basis for fear or greed—the things that usually cause us to be angry, suspicious, and violent.
.. To be clear, it is inconceivable that a true believer would be racist, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, homophobic, or bigoted toward any group or individual, especially toward the poor, which seems to be an acceptable American prejudice. In order to end the cycle of violence, our fight must flow from our authentic identity as Love.
.. I founded the Center for Action and Contemplation thirty years ago was to give activists some grounding in spirituality so they could continue working for social change, but from a stance much different than vengeance, ideology, or willpower pressing against willpower.
Most activists I knew loved Gandhi’s and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s teachings on nonviolence. But it became clear to me that many of them had only an intellectual appreciation rather than a participation in the much deeper mystery. I often saw people on the Left playing the victim and creating victims of others who were not like them. The ego was still in charge. It was still a power game, not the science of love that Jesus taught us.
.. It takes a lifetime, I think. This kind of action, rooted in one’s True Self, comes from a deeper knowing of what is real, good, true, and beautiful, beyond labels and dualistic judgments of right or wrong. From this place, our energy is positive and has the most potential to create change for the good. This stance is precisely what we mean by “being in prayer.” We must pray “unceasingly” to maintain this posture.
.. Wait in prayer, but don’t wait for absolutely perfect motivation or we will never act. Radical union with God and neighbor is our starting place, not private perfection. Contemplation offers a way to make our action sustainable and lasting over the long haul, without being overly defended or cynical.