The economy needs more marshmallow eaters

Roasting a marshmallow.

David Brancaccio: Now, let's be clear. You don't have to go nearly as far as Greece to get whip-sawed by this economic downturn. There was word at the end of the week that personal income in the U.S. went up just a sliver last month, an increase of a tenth percent. Tight budgets in the U.S. means folks aren't spending as much money, which then hits businesses. And then those businesses don't necessarily want to hire people. So how do you change that?

Commentator Meghan Daum wants you to think of one word: Marshmallows.


Meghan Daum: Remember the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment of 1972? It's the one that studied the development of delayed gratification skills by asking preschoolers to choose between eating a marshmallow right away or waiting. If they did wait, they'd get two marshmallows.

As you might imagine, some just couldn't help themselves and popped the thing in their mouth. Others made strenuous efforts to resist temptation. They hid their eyes and kicked the desks. One little girl even stroked the marshmallow as though it were a small, furry animal.

These children were followed through the 1980s, and the data showed that the "high delayers" (the ones who held out and got two marshmallows) had more social and academic success and even got higher SAT scores than their low-delaying peers. And, guess what? Recent data from these kids (now in their 40s) suggests that their brains are wired in such a way that this is a life-long pattern.

So, that great American success mantra -- "Sacrifice now, benefit later" -- isn't just a platitude you hear from parents and finance gurus. It's been scientifically proven.

But today, in the wake of low consumer demand, it's not just high achievers that are exhibiting willpower. It's everyone. And that leads to a certain irony, namely that the behavior most associated with personal prosperity -- delayed gratification -- is now perpetuating our national lack of it.

Does that mean that an army of "low-delaying" marshmallow eaters can save the economy by hitting the malls and buying a bunch of stuff on credit? Probably not. But, every economy needs its instant gratification seekers. We need some folks to splurge when others are saving, to take risky business ventures. For every Warren Buffett, who's probably hoarding marshmallows in his Omaha garage, we need a Donald Trump, who may well be pumping marshmallow fluff into his veins at all times.

In other words, high delayers with their impressive SAT scores and successful outcomes may be good for some things. But, let's face it, what the world needs now are the kids who stuffed their faces without thinking -- or at least some better tasting marshmallows. Otherwise, it's a rocky road indeed.


Brancaccio: Meghan Daum is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. For more on those prudent marshmallow eaters, i.e. savers, check out the insights of personal finance blogger Barbara Friedberg on our Makin' Money blog.

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