How the Famous Marshmallow Study Explains Environmental Conservation

A marine biologist discovers the importance of behavioral economics
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Translator Dustin Abraham conducts an evolved version of the famous marshmallow experiment with a fisherman in Bonaire. (Ayana Johnson)

In the Stanford marshmallow experiment, arguably the most famous study ever conducted on the concept of delayed gratification, children were offered a choice between receiving one small treat (like a marshmallow) immediately or receiving two treats later (like, 15 minutes later). In the years since, the ability to choose deferred rewards over smaller immediate rewards has been associated with numerous positives such as enhanced self-esteem, academic excellence, and physical fitness. 

Marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson speculates that this trait may also have something to do with being better at environmental stewardship.

Johnson thinks a lot about how humans interact with ocean resources (like fish), and what drives us to exploit or conserve these resources. One question she returns to, over and over, is: How can we enable people to take a long-term view when it comes to the wealth of the oceans—"to save some for later, to use the ocean without using it up?"

The answer to that question has more to do with people and the psychology of human decision-making than it does with fish and ecology. So, while doing field work in Curacao and Bonaire for her marine biology Ph.D., Johnson ended up designing a behavioral economics study. The results were published last week in the journal Ecological Economics

It's common knowledge today that fisheries around the world are collapsing—a huge portion of them are either overfished (being harvested too heavily for their populations to keep reproducing properly) or operating at maximum capacity (on the brink of being overfished). It's a situation that threatens the livelihoods of millions of people and is already dragging down the global economy. That fisheries are capable of recovering if certain actions are taken —establishing marine reserves, using different fishing gear, reducing the government subsidies that incentivize overfishing—is also becoming well-known. What is not well-known or fully understood yet is that there are several reasons, rooted in behavioral psychology, why the people who stand to benefit most from these actions may resist them.

As Johnson explains, many fishing communities are severely constrained by poverty. The circumstances of poverty "lead people to make decisions that are not sustainable for long-term vibrant fisheries." The reality is not that they "don't care about the environment"; it's that "they need to care more at the moment about how they’re going to feed their family, put food on the table, pay their bills, and make ends meet," says Johnson. Their current financial conditions necessitate short-term rather than long-term thinking. 

Johnson engaged with over 350 fishermen and SCUBA divers in Curacao and Bonaire in a way quite similar to how the Stanford researchers engaged with American children in the marshmallow experiment. Johnson asked her subjects to choose between receiving 50 U.S. dollars in two weeks or some incrementally fewer number of dollars immediately to test their time preferences, or how much they valued short-term gains over long-term gains. A subject, given the choice between $50 in two weeks or $45 that same day, might choose to take $45. When asked if he would prefer $40 that day instead of $50 later, he might still favor the immediate payout. When forced to consider the difference between $35 immediately and $50 later, though, he might change his mind and decide to wait.

Wherever that shift occurred, whether it was at the $35 price point or higher or lower, revealed something about the subject's attitudes toward money. (It also revealed, in aggregate, that in Curacao and Bonaire, the price of beer is an important financial reference point for many people. Johnson notes that some individuals chose between sooner and later payments "based on whether or not they would be able to buy a case of beer with that amount of money." A case of Polar, the most popular beer on both islands, cost about $37 at the time of the study.)

But, Johnson wanted to know, "Do people think the same way about dollars as they do about fish?" To figure that part out, she conducted exhaustive interviews with each subject to elicit information about his income, his family, and, most importantly, his willingness to support various conservation measures. For example, was a fisherman who had expressed financial impatience (a desire to accept $20 on the spot rather than wait for $50 in two weeks) more or less amenable to the idea of marine reserves (no-fishing zones that obviously restrict a fisherman's catch in the short-term but eventually lead to more abundance and higher catches overall, representing a delayed benefit)?

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Svati Kirsten Narula is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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