Marshmallows and military adventure
By LISA SMITH MOLINARI | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: April 12, 2018
You know those people who open bags of M&Ms and dump the entire contents into their upturned mouths? They’re the same ones who eat icing roses off of birthday cakes, open big presents before little ones, and ask for the good news first.
Unfortunately, I’m not one of those people. Throughout life, I’ve strictly adhered to a “save the best for last” regimen. As a kid, I would squirrel away things — trinkets, treats, rewards — and ration them to myself, slowly and methodically, until the best was left to savor.
Take those M&Ms, for example. I sorted through them one by one, eating the misshapen ones first, until I had a perfect candy of each color. Those five, The Chosen, would be ceremoniously sacrificed in one final, triumphant chomp. They didn’t taste any different than the rest, so why the irrational ritual?
In junior high school, everyone collected stickers, but while my friends were slapping theirs on books and lockers, I stashed mine away for something special. I think my mother still has a sheet of crusty Smurf stickers in the desk drawer of my old room.
Every Easter, Valentine’s Day and Halloween, I saved the best treats so long that they often got too stale to eat.
Decades later, I’m still nibbling around the center of cinnamon rolls and reading the most interesting magazine article last. Why? What has it ever gotten me but a rock-hard coconut egg and a shriveled Papa Smurf sticker? Has all my controlled frugality been for naught?
I consulted an expert (Google) and found that “best for last” tendencies have been researched extensively. Scientists have studied delayed gratification, intuitive judgment and peak-end bias to find out why some eat muffin tops first and others don’t.
In a 2011 University of Michigan experiment, students were given a series of chocolates to eat. With each candy, the experimenter said, “Here is your next chocolate.” But when the experimenter said, “This is your last chocolate,” the subjects tended to rate that last candy as their favorite regardless of the flavor.
Finally, my M&M-sorting ritual makes sense!
This experiment dovetails with “peak-end bias” research by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, which shows that people irrationally judge experiences by what happened last. For example, if a mediocre vacation ended with a fantastic night in a five-star hotel, vacationers tend to remember the trip positively.
Despite this illogical partiality for “end” experiences, there are rational bases for saving the best for last. In the 1960s “Stanford Marshmallow Experiments,” 600 preschoolers were offered one marshmallow now, or two 15 minutes later. The vast majority of subjects waited for the additional reward, proving that children understand delayed gratification. A follow-up study showed that the ability to delay gratification was linked to higher SAT scores and lower body mass indexes.
Somehow, that correlation skipped me ...
Finally, a 2013 Cornell study showed that the tendency to save the best for last fades with age. Apparently, younger adults have long-term visions that require saving for later, while older folks think, “Life is short; eat dessert first.”
How does this apply to military families? Certainly we must be frugal, always saving and planning for our ever-changing futures. Living a life centered around serving one’s country requires careful organization and responsibility. However, military life also offers the luxury to splurge on experiences.
Despite all those years I spent digging through plastic grass for jelly beans while my peanut butter eggs dried up, our family didn’t delay gratification when it came to our military experiences. We “ate the marshmallow,” taking unique opportunities as soon as they arose.
Don’t delay the adventure. Live overseas, rent a unique house, travel, try indigenous foods, go to military balls, eat the whole bag of M&Ms — grab the bull by the horns and make the most of your military journey.