I was in middle school when I first heard about the Stanford marshmallow experiment, a behavioural test that took place at Stanford University in the 1970s. In it, children were seated alone in a room, and on the table in front of them was a single marshmallow. The adult conducting the experiment would tell each child that if they could wait just a few minutes without eating the marshmallow, they would then be presented with two marshmallows to eat. The adult would then leave the room and return several minutes later, at which point they would award the child two marshmallows if they had succeeded in waiting alone without succumbing to the temptation to eat the single marshmallow.
The study was aiming to test children’s understanding of delayed gratification – and, more importantly, determine whether attitudes in childhood correspond with life outcomes in adulthood. In follow-up studies, it was found that the children who had managed to wait without eating the single marshmallow tended to have better life outcomes in terms of academic achievement, BMI and a variety of other measures, compared with those who ate it. While replications of the experiment in future decades did not find as striking a correlation as did the original test, this anecdote sent a powerful message to young me. Good things come to those who wait was the conclusion, and I drank that message in deeply.
It’s easy to dismiss the marshmallow trial as simply an esoteric thought experiment, but the results of these types of experiment can tell us a lot about individuals’ attitudes to risk. Ultimately, my interest in people’s perceptions of risk was why I chose to specialise in behavioural economics at university. Through my studies I came to realise that neoclassical economics makes the error of assuming all human activity is either roughly equal between people, or averages out evenly, whereas the results of behavioural economics demonstrate that real life is far more complicated. Among us are risk takers, those who are risk averse, and those who make mixed decisions. It isn’t as simple as one size fits all.
Returning to the marshmallow test, the findings of such experiments stop being hypothetical when we apply them to our political leaders in times of crisis. Do our political leaders value short-term, but high-risk, strategies when they govern? Or do they value long-term solutions that may cause strife in the immediate future, but will ultimately lead to better outcomes?
As the COVID-19 pandemic has progressed, I have found myself reminded of these questions about risk. For in national governments’ response to the crisis we can see a clear reflection of individual national leaders’ attitude to delayed gratification. Those countries that locked down early are now reaping the rewards of this conscientious, risk-averse action. It speaks volumes that New Zealand is now returning to normal life, seemingly with little to no risk to their population. They have successfully contained the infection and will presumably now see economic benefits from their risk-averse policies. By taking action early, they can now have a fully functioning economy. In contrast, a few days ago Professor Neil Ferguson released the results of a study that showed the UK death rate would have been halved if lockdown had been instigated only a week earlier than it was.
As in the marshmallow experiment, national governments have been presented with a very similar conundrum: is it worth lifting lockdown prematurely when it risks a second wave of infections? Such an act may seem a bold, or even “brave”, move to improve the economy, but it risks losing that extra marshmallow. Or, in the case of the pandemic, it risks the loss of more lives and of a fully functioning health service. Unlike those countries with risk-averse COVID policies, the UK government is now lifting lockdown measures despite multiple calls from scientists to reconsider, and in the midst of 8,000 new COVID-19 infections in England a day. Just as the marshmallow children risked losing that extra marshmallow, this pandemic strategy risks a prolonging of our economic malaise.
Perhaps it is no surprise that a government elected on the back of a vague slogan to “get Brexit done” is more risk-taking than not. Whatever side of the fence you reside on for the Brexit debate, there was surely never any doubt that this slogan was hot air. It isn’t possible for a government to wave its magic wand and create an entire trade and immigration policy that satisfies everyone. Political movements that rely on slogans more than policies always give cause for concern. Populism’s slogans may make us feel good as we walk to the ballot box, but COVID-19 has exposed the risk-taking policies to which it may lead.
While I do wonder whether there is a link between populist governments and risk-taking attitudes of national political leaders (for reference, look to the death counts in the UK, the US and Brazil – all of which are run by right wing populists – it doesn’t make for pleasant reading), one thing I do question is the role sex plays in risk-taking. Just a few weeks ago The Guardian ran an opinion piece making the vague observation that countries with female leaders had, on average, weathered the pandemic better than those with male leaders. I don’t personally buy into the (increasingly popular) concept of toxic masculinity: there are good men and bad men, the same way there are good women and bad women. But from my time studying economics I do buy into the idea that there can be toxic attitudes in risk-taking, which may be correlated to sex.
It is perhaps not surprising that some behavioural economics experiments show that men, on average, display higher risk-taking attitudes than women. This can be a good attribute, in some contexts – without risk-taking we would see no entrepreneurialism and no innovation, so a capitalist society depends on risk-takers to a certain degree. But in a national health crisis, I’m not sure that’s so positive. It’s at times like this that early, decisive action to protect the public (which, let’s be honest, may be unpopular among voters) may lead to improved economic and health outcomes further down the road. We’ve seen this kind of risk averse philosophy implemented in places like New Zealand, Taiwan and South Korea. Two of those countries are run by women, and all of them have favoured the risk-averse approach over the risk-taking we have seen under our populist male leaders. In each case, this has led to positive relative outcomes during the pandemic.
The solutions to COVID-19 aren’t simple. But if our country – and others, such as the United States – is to learn anything, it is that risk attitudes matter in our political leaders. When lives are at stake, the results of the marshmallow experiment stop being hypothetical or trivial. When western nations return to the ballot box in the future, my hope is that they consider whether matters of life or death are best decided by a chancer with some nice slogans, or a slightly less swish but risk-averse leader who operates with long-term outcomes in mind. And as we head towards the end of the UK’s Brexit transition period, this question will become all the more relevant to our welfare. Risk attitudes impact on us all. So while I’m not sure I’d personally have passed the Stanford marshmallow experiment in childhood, I sure as heck will be sure to vote for someone who would have. It’s the least I can promise my country.