“These plans are so unrealistically optimistic that they border on delusional and could lead to outbreaks of Covid-19 among students, faculty and staff.”
Laurence Steinberg, The New York Times, June 15, 2020, referring to proposed college reopenings
A few weeks ago, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman (winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics) wrote a column called “America Fails the Marshmallow Test.” This is a reference to a famous 1960s psychological experiment, in which a marshmallow (or cookie, or piece of candy) is placed in front of a young child, who is told she can eat that marshmallow now, but if she waits 15 minutes, she’ll get two instead of one. Studies stemming from this experiment became a cottage industry, and among the claims made by those involved, being able to postpone gratification for greater gain was a fundamental character trait in the two-marshmallow kids that predicted much about their later success. They were said to have better “executive function,” meaning their frontal lobes were better able to suppress the impulse to get one marshmallow now in order to get two later.
Krugman understood that a 2018 study apparently failed to replicate the marshmallow study, but wanted to use the metaphor for our country’s inability to wait a little longer before lifting social distancing restrictions. Actually, the marshmallow study was not debunked by the 2018 replication, which has been criticized for controlling away some variables (like early cognitive ability) that are intrinsic to what the marshmallow test tries to measure. Also, the replication did find that the test predicted some characteristics of adolescents, just not as much as earlier studies claimed. The critics of the critics—the marshmallow defenders—called their paper “Good Things Come to Those Who Wait,” with the running head, “Delaying Gratification Matters.”
Speaking of delaying gratification, it’s not just five-year-olds who are not good at it. Adolescents are not good at it either.
I know you don’t like to think of yourselves as adolescents, but the fact is that brain development is not complete until age 25 or so, and the main part of the brain that keeps developing is precisely those frontal lobes that are involved in executive functions: planning, reasoning, analyzing, and yes, postponing gratification. This period of extended frontal cortex development has been called youth, pre-adulthood, or emerging adulthood.
Psychologist Laurence Steinberg is the world’s leading authority on brain development in adolescence and beyond, especially in relation to executive functions. He has co-authored papers in law and psychology journals with titles like “Blaming Youth,” “Young Adulthood as a Transitional Legal Category,” and “Less Guilty by Reason of Adolescence.” He has tried to protect young people from the most severe punishments for acts which they literally did not have the brainpower to control.
Now Steinberg has weighed in on a question many of you have asked me about: College reopenings in August, including ours. Steinberg, who has spent his life as a college professor researching the young, wrote an essay two weeks ago called, “Expecting Students to Play It Safe if Colleges Reopen Is a Fantasy.”
Based on his 40 years of research on young people, he writes, “Most types of risky behavior — reckless driving, criminal activity, fighting, unsafe sex and binge drinking, to name just a few — peak during the late teens and early 20s. Moreover, interventions designed to diminish risk-taking in this age group, such as attempts to squelch binge drinking on campus, have an underwhelming track record. There is little reason to think that the approaches proposed to mitigate transmission of the coronavirus among college students will fare any better.”
The evidence on the other side is very strong. Steinberg and his colleagues recently completed “a study of more than 5,000 people between the ages of 10 and 30 from 11 different countries (including both Western and non-Western ones)… Consistent with large-scale epidemiological studies, we found a peak in risk-taking somewhere between age 20 and 24 in virtually every country.” There are three straightforward reasons.
Youth (not just adolescence) is a time of 1. heightened risk taking, and 2. poor self-regulation in all cultures. These two psychological features of young adulthood are in turn explained by 3. easier activation of the brain’s reward circuits, made even worse under conditions of emotional arousal and in the presence of peers.
To Laurence Steinberg, who probably knows more about not only the psychology but the neurobiology of young people than anyone else alive, college reopenings will be a “perfect storm” for viral spread. College reopenings are also being criticized by moral philosophers, college presidents, lawyers, and, of course, some epidemiologists. Dr. Anthony Fauci, our nation’s leading expert on the pandemic, says the matter is “complicated” and will depend on what region of the country you’re talking about.
It’s not always a bad idea to take a reward now even though it may be smaller. That’s why we have the proverb, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Young people are designed to take risks for short-term rewards because that is how they test themselves, learn about life, find mates, make friends, and generally position themselves among their peers. Up to a point you have to take risks.
But we are not talking about a torn ligament, a bad hangover, or a brush with gonorrhea. This is a situation that has never before existed in my lifetime, not even during the early years of HIV/AIDS. I have repeatedly emphasized to you that the unknowns in relation to this pandemic are greater than the knowns, and that remains true. Right now cases are on the rise in the nation, in most states, and in almost every major city in the southern half of the country from Los Angeles to Miami.
The entire state university system of California will be 100 percent online. If you were in college in a rural area of Massachusetts or New York, you would probably be safe attending live, but you are not in one of those colleges. The situation in Atlanta is uncertain, but Emory says it is taking precautions that will make reopening safe.
Last week I said that case counts are like lightning, and that I was waiting for the thunder—hospitalizations and deaths. Being no longer young, I am able to wait. Some leaders claim that the only reason we have more cases is that we have more testing. I think this is wrong, but I don’t want to argue about it because I can wait. Others say we really do have more cases but because the age of infection is on average much lower than it was a month or two ago, we will never see the hospitalizations or deaths go up by much.
Lightning is flashing all across the southern United States, and some say it is starting fires that will be impossible to control and that will in the end kill many. State after state in the south are backtracking on their openings. But the states don’t really control behavior, especially the behavior of the young.
The July 4th weekend is coming, and millions of young people will take the one marshmallow. What will you do?