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September 30, 2018 8:27 am

Genesis and the Marshmallow Experiment

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org.

I was reminded of the famous Marshmallow Experiment last week, when I read that Dr. Walter Mischel had died on September 12 at the age of 88. When he was a professor at Stanford, he carried out an experiment on children that became one of the most influential psychological tests, even though over time it has been challenged for its narrow methodology.

In the study, children were given a choice either to have one small reward immediately or wait several minutes in order to receive two such rewards. In other words, if one could delay gratification, the reward would be greater. Some went for immediate gratification and got less. Others were able to hold out and got more. Some struggled. Others seemed naturally to understand the benefit of waiting. Later studies followed up with the children and found that those who were able wait longer tended to do better in life in terms of educational standards, successful jobs, and fulfilling partnerships.

Among other things, the tests were criticized for focusing on too narrow a segment of the population (namely the children of Stanford faculty). But a variety of other subsequent tests have born out the connection between self-control, deferred gratification, and relative success in life — though that too is an uncertain and ill-defined metric.

Yet as we start reading the Torah cycle again with Genesis, this issue is not so much about delaying gratification, but the ability to exercise self-control; this seems to be one of the most important underlying themes of the Torah.

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Critics often criticize religion for its rituals and petty restrictions, without realizing that there are important benefits. (Though I do agree that too much discipline can have negative side effects. Neurosis and narrow-mindedness are as much a feature of religions as the grand ethical and spiritual messages.) How often does the Torah say something like, “Enjoy, have a good time, but know there are limitations and restrictions too.” Why is this message of control so important?

Let’s start with Eve, the first example of disobedience and a typical case of giving in to self-indulgence. Had she waited to consult her partner Adam, she might have had the information to respond to temptation: to hear what the actual command was, not just the tempter’s version. But no, the fruit — the marshmallow — had to be eaten right away.

The Divine response makes the point. In the Garden of Eden, everything was provided. Life was easy, indulgent. Afterwards it was hard, backbreaking. There was pain. Food has to be eked out of the earth and came with time, patience, and delayed gratification. That is the basis of morality — hold off, don’t grab.

Cain follows a similar path. He expects his slapdash, rather careless offering of the leftovers, “some of the fruit of the earth,” to be acceptable. Abel, on the other hand, offered the best. God told Cain not to be upset at the rejection but to try harder, and then he would succeed. But Cain reacted by lashing out and killing his brother. That is one version of the story. There are plenty of other ones, such as the highly obscure story of Lemech. He had two wives. Had he overstepped the mark, if one wife was enough for Adam? Was he greedy? And is that why he killed someone and came to realize that he would suffer as a result, just as Cain did? His line would come to an end, because, like Cain’s, it was built on an absence of self-control. There were consequences.

One way of seeing this is that humanity is naturally selfish, grasping, and incapable of restraint: “Original Sin” as the Christians call it.

After the flood, Noah and his family are given the task of rebuilding human society. God decides that vague statements of how to behave are not enough. One needs a legal structure. Morality requires a system to describe and enforce it. Making man in the image of God means having constraints (Genesis 9:6), and that delaying gratification is a Divine quality.

According to tradition, we humans have two tendencies that are constantly in conflict with each other, rather like Freud’s idea of the id, the ego, and the superego. The yeytzer hatov, the good inclination, versus the yeytzer hara, the bad one. 

Obviously the good inclination is usually and overwhelmingly the voice of self-control. Don’t grab it all for yourself — think of others, think of the consequences, think of the options, and thus think of the long-term benefits. Whereas the bad inclination is the one that says, “No, I want it now. I must have it. I deserve it, and to hell with the consequences. Why suffer now for gravy later? Why work hard for benefits later?”

Noah’s rainbow reminds us of this covenant with God. The restrictions that are part of our tradition are designed to help our good inclination win over the bad. We are not intrinsically evil or good. We are constantly battling. Sometimes the good side of us wins, other times it loses. None of us is always one or the other. We just need to make sure the good side wins more often.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than forty years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the USA, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.

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