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. You have to believe that “Another World is Possible” before you can make another world possible.
We often imagine that people who are exceptionally good at something are endowed with special strengths, extraordinary talents, or rare virtues. However, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb quite rightly maintains, this isn’t always, or even usually, the case: “Success in all endeavors requires the absence of specific qualities: 1) To succeed in crime requires absence of empathy. 2) To succeed in banking you need absence of shame at hiding risks. 3) To succeed in school requires absence of common sense.”
Success is often a function of some sort of absence. Seeing through camouflage is a case in point. We now know that there’s an upside to colorblindness: the colorblind can see through many kinds of camouflage. Because they’re not distracted by colors, they can often see the contours of a thing—its outline—with unusual clarity. Even so, despite this upside, being colorblind is, on balance, a net handicap to the colorblind individual. They’re missing out on a great deal.
I’ve always been amazed by people who know how to cut through the crap with ease, people with extremely well developed bullshit meters, people who are exceptionally good at discerning the real motives behind actions, people who always seem to know what’s really going on. People, in short, who are exceptionally cynical. But I’ve long since noticed that these very same people frequently fail to see a great deal that the rest of us mere mortals do see.
Cynics often sneeringly maintain that whatever they can’t see or experience isn’t real (e.g., true love, genuine altruism, empathy, divinity, spirituality, transcendence, communion with nature, etc.). And this leads me to suspect that those who are especially good at seeing through bullshit pay dearly for their gift. I suspect that being able to see past nuance comes at a cost. The ability to rapidly reduce complicated moral questions into simple either/or propositions is probably a function of an absence. The moral clarity of most cynics is probably a function of some sort of emotional colorblindness.
—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2018)
Love this little story!
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It never occurred to me that strong will could be founded in trustworthy parents. Very interesting.
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.
I liked this a lot, but there was a quick slide in the last paragraph from ‘seeing through bullshit’ to ‘reducing complicated moral questions into simple either/or propositions’ . In case people think that these things are equivalent: they’re not; and it is possible to see though bullshit without reducing complicated questions (moral or other) into simple binaries – in fact, it might even be necessary in some instances to see though bullshit in order to see the nuances of a question.
This is the passage that I’m talking about:
“And this leads me to suspect that those who are especially good at seeing through bullshit pay dearly for their gift. I suspect that being able to see past nuance comes at a cost. The ability to rapidly reduce complicated moral questions into simple either/or propositions is probably a function of an absence. “