How the Famous Marshmallow Study Explains Environmental Conservation

A marine biologist discovers the importance of behavioral economics

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)?

After controlling for a host of demographic and economic factors, Johnson and her co-author, Dan Saunders, were able to isolate the relationship between interviewees' financial patience and attitudes toward conservation. The one strong correlation they discovered was this: Individuals who were less patient were also less supportive of marine reserves.

The study's other findings—that fishermen and SCUBA divers have different time preferences and different attitudes toward conservation, and that it matters whether one lives on Curacao or Bonaire—are best considered in context of the interviewees' socio-cultural-economic backgrounds.

Overall, the fishermen demonstrated slightly less financial patience than the divers. And the divers were more supportive of all conservation measures—not just the marine reserves—than the fishermen. Both groups depend on the ocean for their income, but in different ways and to different degrees. The fishermen make money by taking fish out of the ocean. The divers make money by taking tourists to look at the fish in the ocean. The divers tend to be young, unmarried, white, non-native (many of them are Dutch), financially secure—they may only be diving part-time, for fun, they may have support from their parents, and they rarely have children of their own—and have less personal and family history in their field than fishers. In contrast, the fishermen are older, they're Antillean, they're heads of families, they depend on fishing to support their families, "and are just in a very different financial situation," says Johnson. They have less access to credit and are "less likely to even have a friend who would loan them 50 bucks—and if they did, that friend would often charge them interest!" For these reasons, she wasn't surprised that the fishermen were less patient.

Residents of Curacao and Bonaire also have different relationships with the sea. Bonaire has a long history of marine preservation, including a national marine park that was established in 1979. Curacao has not yet established a similar conservation zone. And Bonaire depends, economically, much more on diving tourism than Curacao.

Johnson and Saunders found that, on Bonaire, there was much more support for conservation measures among both fishermen and divers. Johnson attributes this to the presence of the marine park and a concept called "conservation inertia." The residents of Bonaire have had the chance to witness the benefits of having a marine park. They've already gone through the process of making a short-term sacrifice for a long-term gain. It's hard to get people to make a sacrifice like that for the first time, to say, "Okay, we'll give up this fishing area, and we know it might cause some economic pain briefly but we will see the benefits soon." However, says Johnson, because of conservation inertia, "once people get over that first hurdle, and they feel in their pockets the benefits of conservation—whether that's more tourists coming or more fish—they're more likely to support similar measures in the future."

But how can policymakers make it easier for individuals to accept short-term economic pain in exchange for long-term economic security? Figure out a way to make the short-term sacrifices hurt less. The idea of paying fishers to offset the short-term losses they'll experience during the transition to a more sustainable fishery—a fishery with restricted access, or that exists alongside a no-fishing zone, or in which certain types of gear are prohibited—ought to be considered not just as an idea but an essential component of any reform plan.