Another Week Ends

1. This week, a social science story takes the lede. New research out of NYU […]

Bryan J. / 6.8.18

1. This week, a social science story takes the lede. New research out of NYU and UC Irvine is casting real doubt on the hallowed Stanford Marshmallow experiment, a study long used to tout the virtues of delayed gratification, patience, and self-control:

The marshmallow test is one of the most famous pieces of social-science research: Put a marshmallow in front of a child, tell her that she can have a second one if she can go 15 minutes without eating the first one, and then leave the room. Whether she’s patient enough to double her payout is supposedly indicative of a willpower that will pay dividends down the line, at school and eventually at work. Passing the test is, to many, a promising signal of future success…

Watts and his colleagues were skeptical of that finding. The original results were based on studies that included fewer than 90 children—all enrolled in a preschool on Stanford’s campus. In restaging the experiment, Watts and his colleagues thus adjusted the experimental design in important ways: The researchers used a sample that was much larger—more than 900 children—and also more representative of the general population in terms of race, ethnicity, and parents’ education. The researchers also, when analyzing their test’s results, controlled for certain factors—such as the income of a child’s household—that might explain children’s ability to delay gratification and their long-term success.

Ultimately, the new study finds limited support for the idea that being able to delay gratification leads to better outcomes. Instead, it suggests that the capacity to hold out for a second marshmallow is shaped in large part by a child’s social and economic background—and, in turn, that that background, not the ability to delay gratification, is what’s behind kids’ long-term success.

Confession of the day: yours truly used the marshmallow study in a sermon on patience last December. So that one’s definitely going in the rewrite pile. And while patience is certainly a virtue—or perhaps, more accurately, a fruit—this latest study is helpful in confirming that patience cannot be a root. A firm foundation it doth not make. Something else (or someone else?) has to engender it.

2. On the Mockingcast this week, our intrepid trio couldn’t wait to talk honest obituaries, particularly the one referenced in the Washington Post last Tuesday.

“In 1962 she became pregnant by her husband’s brother Lyle Dehmlow and moved to California,” the obituary reads, spiraling. “She abandoned her children, Gina and Jay who were then raised by her parents in Clements, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Schunk.”

By the fifth paragraph, it is clear what her children feel about their mother — and her chances in the hereafter:

“She passed away on May 31, 2018 in Springfield and will now face judgement. She will not be missed by Gina and Jay, and they understand that this world is a better place without her.”

The tradition of not speaking ill of the dead is likely less about grace and more about karma — we whitewash other tombs so that others will whitewash ours. So when the mold is broken, and the real world shows through, it’s something remarkable. As one of the interviewees in the article articulated, these are “expressed authentic and heartfelt reflections”.

3a. On to film and TV. Elizabeth Bruenig continues to bring that Augustinian fire with her take on last week’s Rosanne cancellation. Not much to argue with in her WaPo write-up “We Are No Longer Capable of Forgiving Our Enemies”:

…the habit we’re in of waging small-scale wars via celebrity censures has made us nearly incapable of really holding our allies accountable or of really forgiving our enemies. If forgiveness had a face, it would be hideous to us now; to the degree that beauty is a matter of socially constructed taste, we wouldn’t be able to look at forgiveness without revulsion. Forgiveness means having the technical right to exact some penalty but electing not to pursue it. This breaks the cycle of retribution with unearned, undeserved mercy. The face of forgiveness is bruised because it bears its own injuries with grace. So doing permits the cycle of retribution to go no further. It is a hard thing, but necessary, if huge numbers of strangers are going to live peacefully together.

3b. Reviews are starting to come in for “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” and A.O. Scott’s notes from the Times, referencing the Mr. Rogers documentary and indie film “First Reformed,” are worth a look. How could we ignore this lede?

By sheer coincidence — unless it is, somehow, a sign of the times — the two best American movies in theaters right now both happen to be about Protestant ministers grappling with their vocations in a fallen and frightening world. One of these men of the cloth is a fictional character, Ernst Toller, the anguished pastor (played by Ethan Hawke) who ministers to a dwindling flock in Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed.” The other is a real person: Fred Rogers, a graduate of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary whose millions of congregants assembled in front of their parents’ television sets from the late 1960s until the early years of this century, absorbing his benign and friendly secular wisdom.

In case you were wondering, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is rocking 99% on Rotten Tomatoes.

3c. One more take before we change gears: this past week marked the 20th anniversary of “Sex and the City” on HBO. Essays on the milestone are a dime a dozen, but this write-up in the New York Post is a little different: “Dating Columnist Reveals how ‘Sex and the City’ Ruined Her Life”:

I do wonder what my life would have looked like if “Sex and the City” had never come across my consciousness. Perhaps I’d be married with children now? Who knows, but I can say for sure that, as clever and aesthetically pleasing as the show was — and, as much as I agree with its value of female friendships — it showed too much consumerism and fear of intimacy disguised as empowerment…

Truth be told, I wish I had never heard of “SATC.” I’m sure there are worse role models but, for me, it did permanent and measurable damage to my psyche that I’m still cleaning up.

Sure, I could have been a dating columnist for the rest of my life but, honestly, I gave really bad dating advice — and so did Carrie Bradshaw.

4. In humor this week, how did we miss this slice of fried gold from the Bee? “Redditor Takes Ten-Minute Break From Browsing Porn to Lecture Christians on Morality”. It’s an old article that pairs well with new research coming out of MIT on psychopaths: Researchers exposed an experimental artificial intelligence program in an attempt to understand the human brain. The resulting program, named Norman, now sees any Rorschach inkblot as a gruesome death. Maybe this one should be filed under creepy, not funny.

And also, for the most irreverent among us, there’s now “A Game for Good Christians,” the sacred knockoff of Cards Against Humanity you never knew you wanted. From the looks of things, we have clearly not plumbed the depths of good circumcision jokes.


Archeologists find crucified skeleton in Italy. Biblical scholars take note.

Mbird friend and conference speaker Mischa Willett reflects on his time at #MbirdNYC18. What can we say, our conferences have a long shelf life!

One more from the Bee: Y’all Can Argue Whether LeBron or Jordan is the GOAT, but Jesus is the Lamb.

Fans of Sarah Condon’s writing can now find her author page on Facebook.

New episode of The Mockingcast is up, “Our Favorite Hallucinogen,” in which RJ, Sarah and Dave win the narrative on obituaries, Kate Spade and political addictions. Click here to subscribe!