Thursday, May 21, 2009
Kid Discount Rates
In the late nineteen-sixties, Carolyn Weisz, a four-year-old with long brown hair, was invited into a “game room” at the Bing Nursery School, on the campus of Stanford University. The room was little more than a large closet, containing a desk and a chair. Carolyn was asked to sit down in the chair and pick a treat from a tray of marshmallows, cookies, and pretzel sticks. Carolyn chose the marshmallow. Although she’s now forty-four, Carolyn still has a weakness for those air-puffed balls of corn syrup and gelatine. “I know I shouldn’t like them,” she says. “But they’re just so delicious!” A researcher then made Carolyn an offer: she could either eat one marshmallow right away or, if she was willing to wait while he stepped out for a few minutes, she could have two marshmallows when he returned. He said that if she rang a bell on the desk while he was away he would come running back, and she could eat one marshmallow but would forfeit the second. Then he left the room.If you read the whole article, you'll find some allusions to something which I think relates to the discussion from yesterday's class about the importance of exogenous factors versus individual traits -- the difficulty identifying and measuring a clear personality.
Once Mischel began analyzing the results, he noticed that low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.
Humans like to ascribe people's behavior to the person, e.g., Dave blew past me and almost knocked me over, therefore Dave is a jerk. If we observe a person enough, we start to believe that we can discern a personality. Psychologists, though, have had difficulty identifying and measuring personality. They've made some basic steps, but people are a bit erratic. Put the same person in the same situation repeatedly, and they will behave relatively similarly. However, modify the situation slightly, and they will behave very differently. As such, some psychologists believe that the situation determines individual behavior least as much (if not more) than the person does.
For economists, this is a very natural way to think about stuff. The social psychologists are merely confirming what economists strongly believe -- people respond to incentives. However, since people -- particularly children -- have limited control over the situations they face, this further my personal belief that exogenous factors are very important in determining individual outcomes.
If you want to learn more about the importance of situations for determining behavior, I highly recommend the book "The Person or the Situation".
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