06/06/2014 01:18 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2014

Why 'Trust' Should Be a Four-Letter Word


Here's a marshmallow. If you can resist eating it for 15 minutes, I'll give you another one.

How hard can it be?

Extremely. In 1972 a Stanford psychologist named Walter Mischel conducted the above experiment with 600 nursery-school children between the ages of 4 and 6. Each was given the above choice. The researcher then stepped out, returning only 15 minutes later. All the subjects were videoed.

When the last child walked out, the results were stark. Some had eaten the marshmallow straight away, others after a few agonizing minutes. Some were ingenious, gently nibbling one side or eating the inside of the marshmallow. Only about a third held out long enough to get the second treat, though the steps taken were also sometimes drastic. One child licked the table all around the marshmallow while others closed their eyes firmly throughout.

The aim was to explore when we develop the ability to delay self-gratification. But the abysmal failure of the majority of the children to hold out revealed far more about our innate nature. As humans, we all suffer from a strong temporal myopia that stresses rewards today over potentially greater rewards tomorrow. It explains why we find it so hard to diet and why it's so hard to give up smoking. The long-term rewards are clear in each case, but the near-term pleasure from that burger or that slow drag is far more appealing.

This myopia of memory is also why we buy expensive items like televisions and cars on credit today and pay far more over time, why corporates and banks are more focused on share prices today than on long-term health, and why governments spend today and hope for growth tomorrow. It's all about feeling good today.

But that's not all. The Stanford marshmallow experiment also spawned a self-help industry when researchers looked at the children years later and linked the ability to resist the marshmallow to higher achievements and better social skills later in life. The assumption drawn was that the ability to delay gratification and display self-control was the key to success.

The self-help industry was wrong.

The experiment was less about subsuming our self-destructive urges and more about trust. What was perceived as an irrational outcome -- eating the marshmallow before the 15 minutes were up -- had its roots very much in rational decision making, albeit influenced by our environment.

In 2012 researchers at the University of Rochester carried out the marshmallow study again, but with one important difference. Twenty-eight children between the ages of 3 and 5 were each given a blank piece of paper to decorate as part of a create-your-own-cup kit, and a container of used crayons. They were then told that if they could wait a few minutes, the researcher would return shortly with a bigger and better set of new art supplies.

At this point the experiment diverged down two paths. For half the children the researcher returned after two and a half minutes with an abject apology and helped them open the crayon container. For the other half a full tray of art supplies magically turned up.

A similar exercise followed with stickers, with half receiving a selection of large, colorful stickers while the rest had to make do with just a small quarter-inch one.

The marshmallow test now followed as before. The first set of children, who had been continually disappointed by the researcher, lasted only about three minutes, with just one child holding out for the full 15 minutes. In contrast, the second group, who had seen every promise fulfilled, were patient for 12 minutes on average, with the majority receiving their second marshmallow.

The levels of trust played a key role. The first group had every reason to be skeptical that the researcher would return in 15 minutes with another marshmallow. Under those constraints, they took the rational decision to take the treat that was there now for the taking. The second group had no such qualms.

In the real world this is the distinction between having a stable world that incubates trust and having an uncertain environment that challenges your trust regularly.

Life is an exercise in instinctive opportunism. What we may call rationality is often bounded in practice on all sides by emotion and our environment, leading us to use small mental shortcuts every day to make decisions. The largest part of our environment by far is other people. And the most common shortcut we all take is trusting others.

In the complex world we inhabit, trust is a survival mechanism that's necessary for making quick decisions. Other people provide valuable filters. As children we look to parents and friends for guidance. As adults we consult friends, strangers, gurus, the Internet, self-help books, and the like to inform our views of the world and direct our actions in a timely manner. As humans we place abstract faith in society, institutions, and dogmas.

It's an insight that tells us why we viciously punish those who betray us, why panics grip financial markets, and why revolutions erupt suddenly.

Trust is fundamental to the smooth workings of society. The loss of trust leaves a vacuum that threatens to destabilize the equilibrium we have created. It destroys confidence and sows the seeds of panic, shortening our time horizons, often for the worse.

Today social trust is low and ebbing fast. We don't trust authority. We think the financial system is rigged. We don't believe society is fair and meritocratic. We don't trust in a secure future.

And if you don't believe that, here are some terms from recent times that might be familiar: "the Arab Spring," "the 99 percent," "the tea party."

As one of the researchers in the second study noted, "If you are used to getting things taken away from you, not waiting is the rational choice."

Care to wait 15 minutes for another marshmallow?