28 August 2016
Misinterpreting Privileges and Marshmallows
The other day I ran into a Facebook video that claimed to “[D]estroy the myth of 'White Privilege' with basic stats.” The video was a couple of brief excerpts from a talk given by a fellow named Ben Shapiro who is proudly on the “Right” side of American politics. The video just focused on the portion of his remarks about how the Brookings Institute, which Shapiro calls a “very left institute,” asserted that permanent poverty in the United States can be prevented by finishing high school, getting a job, and not getting pregnant before getting married. He notes that single motherhood in the black community is extremely high by historical standards going from 20% in 1960 to “upwards of 70% today.” [This claim is confirmed by an article in the Washington Post- links below.] He then states emphatically that taking personal responsibility is the key to changing outcomes in the black community. He says white privilege, therefore, has nothing to do with it in the same way that his not playing in the NBA is not due to a conspiracy against 5'9” jews playing professional basketball. (In the unedited version I linked to below the NBA comments preceded the others.) So, he clearly claims that the sole or at least a primary cause of single motherhood and drop-outs in the black community is a failure to exercise personal responsibility.
This brought to my mind a famous experiment by the psychologist Walter Mischel that amazingly showed how personal self-control at the age of about four strongly predicts outcomes in the adult lives of those children. It is known as the Marshmallow Experiment. The kids with less self-control had worse outcomes as adults, the kids with more self-control had better outcomes. So this would seem to be a piece of evidence in favor of Mr. Shapiro's hypothesis. And the popular press and some schools have had a field day with this experiment to the point that the schools teach elementary school children about the experiment and put posters on the walls that remind them: “Don't eat the marshmallow!” In other words the children are being taught to take personal responsibility for their ability to resist temptations that could distract them from obeying the dictates of their school.
Shapiro is applying the concept of direct causation to the situation of permanent poverty in the United States and the popular interpretation of the Marshmallow Experiment does the same. According to cognitive linguist George Lakoff direct causation is enshrined in the grammatical structure of every known language but systemic causation is not encoded in the structures, grammatical or otherwise, in any known language. Human languages operate on the wiring of our brains in a manner that makes direct causation the obvious answer to every question of causation. However, that doesn't make direct causation the correct answer to every one of those questions. In response to this challenge to the truth we have developed elaborate social systems like science to help us answer those questions correctly by constructing elaborate stories to explain the truth of causation when it is systemic. Given that we are predisposed to think in terms of direct causation rather than systemic causation, the popular sentiments that make personal responsibility central to interpreting both the Marshmallow Experiment and Permanent Poverty in the United States are understandable. But are these really cases of direct causation? How much of a role could personal responsibility have played?
Let's start with the Marshmallow Experiment. The basic situation is that the experimenters presented the small children with a marshmallow, pretzels, or even a poker chip and proposed that if the child could resist the temptation to eat the item (or whatever would be tempting to do with a poker chip) for 15 minutes the experimenter would give them another one. Then the kids were left alone to wait in the presence of their temptation. Actually, they were being secretly observed to find out what they would do. So the logic was simple, eat the one now or eat two later. The challenge for the kids in the minds of economists was whether that particular length of time to wait was worth it to double your take. The experimenters found that the kids who failed tended to have poorer outcomes in their later lives statistically. Notice that this is a statistical effect, not an unwavering inevitability. It is also not a causal claim, no one believes that the failure on the marshmallow test caused the poor outcomes. The argument is that the test result is indicative of something about the kids that would follow them throughout the rest of their lives. The something else is most often posited to be a cognitive process called executive function. Those with less developed executive function would fail the test and those with more developed executive function would pass it and those differences in executive function would remain throughout life thus causing differential life outcomes.
Walter Mischel, the experimenter, was specifically concerned with the methods that children came up with to mange the task they were given. He wanted to find out how they would cope with a temptation that he knew would be hard to resist. He deliberately created a challenge for them so that he would be able to observe a range of outcomes. So now I ask you to reconsider who was responsible for the outcomes of the experiment. In particular I want you to reconsider who is responsible for the failures. Were the children responsible for failing to wait long enough to get the second marshmallow?
Would you be surprised if I said that if I were the experimenter I could guarantee 100% success in resisting temptation? The method is simple: don't present the children with a temptation and they will all succeed in not succumbing to it. The truly responsible party for the failures was the creator of the situation, not those who happened to lack the skills for resisting the temptations to which they were exposed. Walter Mischel deliberately created a situation in which he expected to observe failures. If he did not create a situation that exhibited a mixture of success and failure he would have had to change the situation until he did, because that mix of failure and success was exactly what he wanted to learn about!
Now, let's consider why this experiment was so predictive of later outcomes in life. Where did the kids spend the majority of their time growing up? In school. Given that the school system does not even consider issues of executive function in their conception of what school should provide, then it is even less likely that the children will have any training that is relevant to the development of the executive function system at school. We know, thanks to Gallup, that today at least 50% of school children are disengaged. A majority of them can be expected to fake their way through the content-based tasks that schools at least pretend they are concerned with developing. How much transformation of an undeveloped executive function system should we expect from disengaged students in a system that does not even pretend to provide any stimulation for that system? Based on this view of the school system, then there is no reason to believe that there would be any substantive change in the relative development of executive function across the K-12 years.
In case you objected to my solution for getting 100% success at resisting temptation, this is where I acknowledge that my solution does nothing to ensure success in later life. What is needed to improve the outcomes in later life is to provide the kids with exactly the right amount of temptation to be successful much of the time, but not all of the time. They need to be put into situations that stretch their executive functioning. They need a balance between the level of challenge their environment provides and the level of skill they have to address the challenges they face. They need to participate in an environment that engages them in making meaningful decisions on a regular basis. This will guarantee that their executive functions develop rather than stagnate. This is the basis of most of the work I do on improving education, so I refer you to my web site rather than attempting to detail it here: schools-of-conscience.org
And those posters reminding the kids to resist the temptation? Those schools are attempting to abdicate responsibility for creating situations that are not geared to match up the levels of challenge and skill for each child. To be fair the children share responsibility to the degree that they have made choices that reinforce their commitment to participating in that environment. But, if they are forced to be there then they are not the responsible party, the school is. So, the true victims are the ones unwillingly subjected to the school program. The personally responsible ones are those who have made valid choices to participate in the school program. And the personally responsible students can become victims if outside forces invalidate their choices. The death of a family member or any other significant change in their home life might invalidate their choices. When circumstances deal a blow to a child, then the school needs to take action to enable that child to make a new valid choice for themselves in order to get back on track. But that will usually take an unpredictable amount of time, so for schools that operate in inflexible academic schedules it will be unlikely that they can meet the challenge. The responsibility for the situation of school is, in any case, largely the responsibility of the school, not the children. So blaming children for their outcomes in that situation is only valid if you can show that they were on board with participating in that situation and made valid on-going choices to participate. That is rarely the case in mainstream schooling.
Now let's consider Mr. Shapiro's argument. Is personal responsibility all it takes to overcome the problems of poverty, drop-outs, and single mothers? If my critique is to apply then we have to consider whether the situation has been created for the poor, the drop-outs and the single mothers by someone else. It is utterly absurd to believe that children are responsible for the society and the schools they are subjected to so I believe Mr. Shapiro's argument about the cause of single motherhood and drop-outs is fundamentally also absurd. He is just blaming the victims of the situations that are created by schools which are subject to the conditions in the society in which they are situated. I will readily concede that there is some degree of personal responsibility involved, but it is trivial compared to the responsibility that the schools bear for creating situations in which the primary psychological needs of children and teens are routinely thwarted. By the time a teen is dropping out and getting pregnant they have lived in a situation for many years in which they are effectively starved for opportunities to exercise autonomy and relatedness. Over those years within the school situation that takes up most of their waking hours they have no practice making meaningful decisions. Under the influence of the hormones of puberty that notoriously short circuit executive function they discover that sexuality is way to actively meet both of those needs. And lo and behold they tend to mess up that particular decision making process. What a surprise! Ben Shapiro believes that their failures to use the executive functions that their early experiences in impoverished homes and psychologically inappropriate schooling prevented them from developing is their fault. They are to blame for not having been provided with the appropriate opportunities to develop the executive functions in their brains.
Whatever it was that enabled some four year olds to develop more executive function provided them with an undeserved advantage. And that advantage clearly made a difference over the course of those children's lives. They experienced the benefit of privilege. He may have some valid points in questioning the role of race as a mechanism of privilege, but he is flat wrong to deny that privilege, in itself, exists.
I do agree with Mr. Shapiro and other critics that “privilege” is sometimes used more as an epithet and a mechanism for shutting down conversation rather than as a productive critique. So, I sympathize with those who feel embattled by the persistence of the privilege police. But that does not change the fact that it exists, at least for people who do not elevate “personal responsibility” into an ideological principle that takes precedence over psychology. The politically conservative “right” seems to sometimes verate personal responsibility as the sole form of responsibility. Such veneration seems to dismiss social responsibility and the various forms of systemic causation as mechanisms of productive change. Social responsibility is far more important than personal responsibility due to the fact that social responsibility has more far reaching consequences.
For me the concept of privilege is just a recent variation on the theme of how policies interact with brains to create limitations on what can happen in the situations subject to those policies. In other words, privilege is just another part of the hidden curriculum. Once again, just because a curriculum or a privilege is “hidden” does not mean that “exposing” it will provide access to a solution. The fact is that the nature of privilege is such that it will always be hidden. The challenge is to ensure that certain privileges become pervasive. The fundamental privileges that all humans should have unconscious access to are the privileges of having each of our primary human needs supported. Right now there is clear evidence that primary needs are not supported for most people with disproportionate lack for people of color.
I do not know if whiteness is the cause of the privilege or merely occurs as a coincident to the true cause. I am confident that we will not make true progress on the problem of privilege until we measure the right things to indicate where it is lacking. The right things to measure are the satisfaction of primary needs or the things that satisfying them leads to such as intrinsic motivation for and engagement with the typical activities you do in your school or work place.
The unedited video of Ben Shapiro's talk with text summarizing his talking points:
Brookings Institute's 3 rules to end permanent poverty:
Washington Post confirmation of the single motherhood stats:
Atlantic Magazine Interview with Walter Mischel: