John Green reviews the teenage celebration known as prom and the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment.
John Green reviews the teenage celebration known as prom and the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment.
Hello and welcome to the Anthropocene Reviewed, a podcast where we review different facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale. I’m John Green, and today I’ll be reviewing two complicated stories that we like to imagine simply, the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment and the teenage celebration known as prom.
My high school had no prom, but I did attend one—in 1994, in my hometown of Orlando, Florida. My date, a Band Geek who’d go on to become an accomplished classical musician, was as profoundly uncomfortable with the whole experience as I was. I recall her dress being blue and extremely complicated—it was a floor-length poofy ball gown with many layers, and all night long, I kept looking at her dress and wondering where she was inside of it, how and where it connected to her actual body. I wore a rented tuxedo with a sparkly gold cummerbund and matching bowtie. It was my first time ever wearing a tuxedo, and I swore it would be my last—the thing smelled of other people’s sweat and its thick polyester was stifling. Whenever I find myself in a tuxedo—at an awards banquet, or a fundraiser, or at my wedding, —I feel certain that I lack the qualifications to be doing whatever is expected of me.
Although today prom is a global phenomenon, it has its roots in 19th century America. In fact, the first recorded use of the word “prom” was in an 1894 diary entry written by an Amherst College student named Dwight Morrow, who wrote that he had been “invited to the Smith Junior prom.” At the time, proms—short for the word promenade—were sort of democratized debutante balls. Now, we’re not here to review 1.5-star debutante balls, in which rich people throw parties to introduce their daughters to polite society and eligible bachelors, but proms were originally a way for less rich young people to promenade themselves as couples, or promenade themselves as couples, I guess, depending on your level of snootiness. The idea was that those on the outside of high society who wanted to be on the inside of it could have an opportunity to interact in formalwear while also learning—and showing off—their manners and etiquette.
I tend to believe that manners get a bad rap—yes, there is no real reason to chew food with your mouth closed or hold the door open for strangers, and yes, manners can reinforce inequality and class divisions. But one of the things I like about humans is that we’ve made informal rules about how to live with each other, and that at our best we’re able to enforce those rules not through violence or monetary fines but through mild social pressure. Chewing with your mouth shut is, for instance, an extremely minor form of sacrifice for one’s fellow humans, a way of saying that you value other people enough not to show them the food you’re masticating. At their best, manners are essentially kindnesses.
That noted, prom has long been a social justice battleground because prom has always been about modeling particular, and often discriminatory, codes of morality and etiquette. When I was a kid, many schools had segregated proms, or refused entry to black students or interracial couples. Same-sex couples have also been rejected at proms, as have trans students. From the beginning, prom has wanted to tell us a simple story about who we are—it’s not just that boys date girls, and that girls wear dresses and boys wear suits; it’s that girls wear certain kinds of dresses, dresses that are flattering without being too revealing, that are at once modest and likely to attract the interest of romantic partners. A 1936 guide to prom said of dresses, “they may be ankle or floor length … with necklines not too low to appear extreme.” And of course when it came to prom, boys asked girls to the dance, which cemented gender roles. One 1950s advice book said that girls who “usurp the right of boys to choose their own dates will ruin a good dating career,” and that, “From the Stone Age, when men chased and captured their women, comes the yen of a boy to do the pursuing. You will control your impatience, therefore, and respect the time-honored custom of boys taking the first step.” Chase and capture. Control your impatience. There’s nothing subtle about what prom is up to.
Prom has also always been about teaching young people what adulthood ought to look like. This began as high-mannered, aggressively chaste women finding equally high-mannered husbands, and then morphed into girls and boys learning the social order’s expectations for girls and boys. These days, prom has in many places become much more inclusive, but it still welcomes young people into a kind of imagined adulthood—by dressing kids in formalwear, yes, but also through mythologizing alcohol consumption and especially the Losing of One’s Virginity. Even the wondrously transgressive 2017 prom movie Blockers begins with three girls pledging to lose their virginity on prom night. The characters go on to make a variety of choices about sexuality, but despite being a kind of anti-prom prom movie, Blockers still tells the prom story we’ve come to know.
Like, the idea of Losing Your Virginity at Prom was so ingrained into my adolescent life that 1. 16-year-old me felt like a complete freak for being utterly emotionally unprepared to have sex, and 2. I never once paused to consider that virginity itself is an absolutely bananas concept. Like, the way that virginity was constructed for me held that only heterosexual intercourse was sex, which made other kinds of intimacy feel simultaneously like shameful perversions and legal loopholes. The construct of virginity felt special, and important, not because it really was, but because of the stories we told about it.
And so, too, with prom. It feels momentous because so many movies are about it, and because you’re told by magazines and web sites and your elders that it just might be the Best Night of Your Life. No party could stand up to that level of pressure and expectation, especially not one in a 1994 hotel ballroom with the theme “Enchantment under the Sea.” But even so, I had a lovely evening with my date. I did feel uncomfortable at times—I didn’t know many people at the party, and there was the aforementioned tuxedo to contend with—but my date was kind, and it was fun to play at adulthood, and at the end of the night, we shared a kiss in her parents’ driveway, and I drove home feeling giddy and grown-up. There’s nothing like driving alone at night, watching your headlights make visible what’s in front of you, singing along to a hit song that won’t age well. It doesn’t matter that your experience is cliché, because it’s new to you.
Or that’s how I always remembered it, anyway. It turns out that many of my prom memories did not, in fact, happen to me. While researching this review, I learned that “Enchantment under the Sea” was not the theme of my high school prom; “Enchantment under the Sea” was the theme of the dance in the movie Back to the Future. Furthermore, the evening I remember as being my prom was not—it was a different dance, called “homecoming,” and I wasn’t a junior in high school but a sophomore. Admittedly, I have an unusually bad habit of remembering fictional pasts as my own, but no human memory is reliable. The stories we hear don’t just shape the way we look at the world; they shape the way we remember it, too. And prom is a story in the end, complete with a theme. Kurt Vonnegut wrote that “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be very careful what we pretend to be.” Prom is what we pretend it is, for better and for worse.
I give prom three stars.
After the break we’ll turn our attention to the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, but first:
In the 1960s, a psychologist at Stanford University named Walter Mischel, along with his associates Ebbe Ebbesen and Antoinette Zeiss, began a series of experiments on preshool-aged children. A kid would be brought into a private room, presented with a single marshmallow on a plate, and then told that if they waited fifteen minutes without eating the marshmallow, they would receive a second marshmallow. It wasn’t always a marshmallow, actually—often it was a cookie, or a pretzel. Regardless, some of the kids immediately ate the treat, but most at least attempted to delay gratification long enough to get that second treat. Mischel and his colleagues found that “distractions from the rewards, overtly or cognitively, facilitated delay.”
To distract themselves, the kids would “cover their eyes with their hands or turn around so they can’t see the tray. Others start kicking the desk, or tug on their pigtails, or stroke the marshmallow as if it were a tiny stuffed animal.” But despite these distraction techniques, most kids eventually ate the single marshmallow—only a third of those who attempted to delay their gratification lasted the full fifteen minutes.
But that is not why the marshmallow experiment is famous. It’s famous because when Mischel followed up with the subjects of the experiment as they aged, he found that those who could delay their gratification effectively had higher SAT scores, lower rates of substance abuse, and better lives in almost every way. As Mischel put it, “Children who were able to wait longer at age 4 or 5 became adolescents whose parents rated them as more academically and socially competent, verbally fluent, rational, attentive, planful, and able to deal well with frustration and stress.” And the original participants have continued to be studied—functional MRI tests in 2011 showed that those who delayed gratification effectively at four or five years old had on average more activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with so-called executive functions like working toward long-term goals and suppressing urges that might have undesirable consequences.
I never took the marshmallow test as a kid, but based on all of those conclusions, I definitely would’ve eaten the marshmallow immediately. I didn’t even know the word “planful” existed before I read Mischel’s study, and I’ve lived my entire life not just ignorant of the world but also of the concept. I don’t deal well with frustration or stress. I was a terrible student. My SAT scores were humiliating. And if my parents had been asked to rank my adolescent “social competence,” I suspect they would’ve just sighed and shrugged their shoulders.
I’ve actually met one of the original participants in the marshmallow experiment; they don’t remember whether they delayed gratification, but they’re very successful today. Then again, many of the marshmallow kids are—in part because they were all students at Stanford University’s Bing Nursery School. Most were the children of Stanford professors or grad students. They were more affluent and had better educational opportunities than most American kids, a fact that often gets glossed over in coverage of the marshmallow experiment.
Mischel, who died in 2018, might counter that similar results were observed in studies of less privileged kids, although those studies didn’t have the decades-long follow-up of the Stanford kids. And of course it makes sense that an ability to delay gratification would be associated with better test scores and whatnot—those who are able to invest in their long-term well-being by spending a Saturday afternoon studying a calculus textbook will, on average, do better on tests than those who, say, would rather drink Gatorade and vodka while watching VHS tapes of Beavis and Butthead.
My high school roommate, who was the smartest and hardest working person I’ve ever known, once told me that the reason he was going to succeed in life was because he did not believe in Horace’s 2,000-year-old aphorism Carpe Diem, meaning Seize the Day. I said “carpe diem” a lot in high school—it was my excuse for blowing off homework and for getting drunk, which were two of my central adolescent pastimes. My roommate told me that he believed in Carpe Posterum. Seize the future. He didn’t miss a single question on his SATs, and went on to become a very successful doctor. That guy could wait years for his marshmallows.
I think we like to talk about the Marshmallow Experiment because it holds that the world is as we want it to be—a place where grit and determination and patience are rewarded. Yes, there’s something baked-in about those character traits, but they can also be encouraged and cultivated in children—and so we can view the arc of a life as resulting from both one’s nature and one’s nurturing. But human life is not so simple, as Mischel was always pointing out when his work would be mischaracterized in the media. There’s luck involved, and privilege, too. Henry VIII didn’t become the king of England because he was good or bad at waiting. He became the king of England because his father was the king of England. For the record, like a lot of people who’ve been married six times, Henry VII was not a patient person.
In 2018, a study was published in the journal Psychological Science in which researchers at NYU replicated the marshmallow study with a larger group of 4-year-old participants from a wider variety of backgrounds, and then followed those kids until the age of 15. The researchers found that after controlling for household income and other differentiating factors, “associations between delay time and measures of behavioral outcomes at age 15 were much smaller and rarely statistically significant.” Kids with less money and familial stability were less likely to wait for the second marshmallow, but that might not really be about one’s ability to delay gratification—instead, it might be about knowing that food in the pantry now might not be there tomorrow, and that sometimes adults offer future rewards they don’t deliver on, due to lack of resources. Put another way, it’s a lot easier to wait for the second marshmallow when you aren’t hungry.
It’s hard to seize the future when you can’t fully believe in it. When you know what kids shouldn’t have to know. That the future may be promising, but can’t always keep its promises. You want to believe that hard work and discipline will yield stability, but the truth is that life is perpetually precarious. You’re never more than one bad break away from catastrophe. We do better on average if we believe in the future, but then again no human life is lived on average. So in the end, I can’t fault those of us who gather our marshmallows while we may.
I give the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment three stars.
Thanks for listening to The Anthropocene Reviewed, which was written by me, edited by Stan Muller, and produced by Rosianna Halse Rojas and Tony Philips. Joe Plourde is our technical director. Hannis Brown composed the music. Thanks also to everyone who has shared this podcast with their family or their friends or other social networks. We hope to be able to make this for a while, and it means a lot to us when people care enough about this weird little thing to spread the word about it. My favorite fact that didn’t make it into today’s episode? I did in fact attend a junior prom. My mother confirmed this. I had a different date who was just a friend but a lovely person. I wore a different tuxedo, although equally hideous in its own way. And also, my hair was dyed a color called fuschia plum, and my mother’s chief memory of my prom night is that I had fuschia plum dandruff falling onto my tuxedo. Thanks again for listening to The Anthropocene Reviewed. Finally, today’s podcast is dedicated to that tenth grade homecoming date. Thank you so much for your kindness on that night, and I can’t tell you how happy I am to know that you are still making music.