Joseph Stiglitz, the economist who has been honored with the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, insists we are paying a high price for that social inequality, that it’s an issue to take seriously for compassionate and more self-serving reasons.
But to act on inequality requires facing a more basic question. Do you believe this statement is true or false?
“The reason inequality exists is that some types of people are basically lazy.”
If you believe this statement is true, I hope you’ll consider recent revelations from motivation science before landing on what you choose to believe. Dealing with inequality demands examining your beliefs about human nature. Motivation science can shine a light bright enough to illuminate where to start our journey to understanding why inequality exists.
People are not basically lazy. Period. How you defined “some types of people” doesn’t change the equation. Our human nature — regardless of gender, generation or race — is to be “curious, vital, and self-motivated.” Human beings are not basically lazy but are agentic and inspired, striving to learn and extend ourselves, eager to master new skills and apply our talents responsibly, according to motivation scientists, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, the fathers of self-determination theory.
Let’s say you are willing to accept the truth that human beings are not basically lazy and want to persist, contribute to the greater good, and exhibit the positive tendencies of our nature. However, you are still convinced that some types of people by their nature or culture are unable and/or unwilling to do what is required to contribute — that they appear to take more than they give.
If so, consider two marshmallow studies: one famous and one less famous but more profound for understanding the nature of human motivation.
First, let’s look at the famous marshmallow study.
Researchers from Stanford University put young children alone in a room with a marshmallow and told them that, if they wait 15 minutes before eating it, they’ll receive a second marshmallow. What the hidden cameras reveal next is hysterical and eye-opening — check it out.
But what makes the research compelling is how years later, researchers revisited the subjects and compared delayed gratification scores to their current life, using measures such as SAT scores, level of education and body mass index. They found a striking correlation. The children who had been able to delay their gratification for the marshmallow the longest — those with the greatest degree of self-regulation — had higher life-measure scores. Researchers postulated that children with high-quality self-regulation had greater later-life success.
Marshmallows: The rest of the story
As profound as the results appeared, I was bothered. Are some people — or some types of people — simply born with the ability to self-regulate and delay gratification? Following up on my curiosity, I discovered another marshmallow study by scientists at the University of Rochester. These researchers had a different question they wanted to understand: Why would some kids have higher-quality self-regulation than others?
Posing as teachers, the researchers set up an art project. Told they had a choice, the children could start their art project immediately with the materials at hand (a few old, used crayons in a glass jar), or they could wait for the teacher to get a big supply of brand-new art materials. All the children elected to wait for the good stuff.
Unbeknownst to the children, they were put into one of two groups: one where the teacher returned with art supplies as promised, the other where she returned with only an apology.
As the children continued their art projects with the hidden camera still on, the teacher announced it was time for a snack. The children were given another choice: Eat a marshmallow now or wait for the teacher to come back with another marshmallow in 15 minutes.
Viewing the videos, you witness many of the same tactics used by kids in the original marshmallow studies. One kid nibbles the bottom of the marshmallow and puts it back on the plate, hoping no one will notice. One little boy sits on the marshmallow — out of sight, out of mind?
One telling difference in these marshmallow studies compared to the original: Children who had received their art supplies as promised exhibited delayed gratification four times longer than the children who experienced the unfulfilled promise.
Lessons learned from children and marshmallows
An environment where promises are kept is more likely to engender self-regulation because you trust your delayed gratification will be rewarded. An environment where promises are broken is more likely to lead to diminished self-regulation, leaving you with less than others, yearning more from a world you don’t trust to support your longings. Now imagine those children, grown into adults. What have we learned?
Our individual desire for vitality and well-being is foundational to being human. But research shows optimal motivation is a fragile state, thwarted by broken promises — compounding years of prejudicial treatment, social injustice and systemic bias, both implicit and explicit. Individuals are naturally agentic and self-regulating, but what happens when an entire group of people can’t trust they’ll ever get that proverbial second marshmallow?
All human beings long to thrive, contribute to the greater good, learn and grow. No one wants to be bored or disengaged. If people are failing, maybe they aren’t basically lazy. Maybe the collective needs to work harder to ensure schools, workplaces and communities where “some types of people” don’t have to work so hard to self-regulate — where we remove the knee from their necks and allow their humanity to flourish.
To make that happen, each of us needs to examine our own beliefs about human nature. True or false? Your answer matters.
Susan Fowler is on a mission to help you learn the skill of motivation. In her latest book, “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals,” she presents an evolutionary idea: motivation is a skill. Providing real-world examples and empirical evidence, Fowler teaches you how to achieve your goals and flourish as you succeed. She is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research, and eight books, including the best-selling “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard and “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing.” Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs. For more information, visit SusanFowler.com.