The Wisdom of Innocence

It’s one of social science’s greatest hits: a fidgety little kid sits alone, in a room, with a marshmallow. He can eat it now if he wants. Won’t get in trouble for doing so. But if he can refrain from eating it for fifteen minutes, he’ll get another one when the grownup comes back. The film footage is laugh outloud funny. Some of the kids cave right away. Some try to cheat the system by taking little nibbles. And some hold out heroically for five or ten agonizing minutes before snatching up the precious like Gollum. But some of them go the distance.

When researchers checked in on these kids two decades later, some interesting patterns emerged. The kids who caved right away were far more likely to be drug addicts, high school dropouts, teen parents, criminals, overweight, depressed—whilst those who went the distance were far more likely to stay out of trouble and do well in school. These little gold-star bespeckled overachievers had something from an early age, something their prodigal peers lacked: namely, willpower (the ability to delay gratification). And this was key to their success. Or so we thought.

Turns out, kids who go the distance aren’t blessed with extraordinary willpower; they’re blessed with extraordinary parents. They’re willing to wait for the second marshmallow because they trust that the grownup who made the promise is going to keep his word. They trust the grownup because they’ve grown up in loving homes, surrounded by grownups who keep their word—stable, predictable grownups—grownups you can trust. These kids trust the adult world because it’s proven trustworthy. They’re privileged. And their privilege has made them naïve. But there’s a wisdom in this naïveté, just as there’s a wisdom in innocence.

We’re often told in this day and age that the privileged are all deluded and the underprivileged see things as they are. In practice, this is usually just a covert defense of the cynical perspective, because seeing things clearly always seems to mean seeing things cynically. Regardless, I don’t buy it. Never have. I think lack of privilege reveals just as much as it conceals. Just as you need to have seen blue things to understand what blue is, you need to have experienced beauty and love and order to know what beauty and love and order are.

If you’ve never met a trustworthy grownup, you might be tempted to conclude that trustworthy grownups don’t exist. If you’ve never experienced true love, you might be tempted to conclude that it’s a myth. And if you’ve never seen government work well, you might be tempted to conclude that good government is a myth. To wit: you have to believe that “Another World is Possible” before you can make another world possible.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2017)

About John Faithful Hamer

John Faithful Hamer is a college professor who still can't swim, drive, or pay his bills on time. His sense of direction is notoriously unreliable, yet he'd love to tell you where to go. His lack of practical skills is astounding, and his inability to fix things is renowned, yet he'd love to tell you what to do. His mismanagement of time is legendary, as is his inability to remember appointments, yet he fancies himself a philosopher and would love to tell you how to live. He wouldn't survive in a state of nature, of that we can be sure; but he's doing quite well in the big city, which has always been a refuge for the ridiculous, a haven for the helpless, and a friend to the frivolous.

4 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Innocence

  1. Yes. This is something that is being found in various forms across psychology and biology. In attachment theory it’s the basic trust vs basic mistrust alignment. In life history theory it’s slow vs fast.


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