The inventor of the marshmallow experiment, Walter Mischel, died in September. If you remember, this was the psychological test where you leave a young child alone in a room with a marshmallow, saying you can either have this one straightaway, or two marshmallows if you wait 15 minutes.
The children who held out for the second marshmallow supposedly did better academically and in other ways later in life.
In fact it is not as simple as this, and there are some who question the validity of the marshmallow study. The real test of any psychological experiment is whether it can be replicated multiple times. Many eye-catching studies that have got into books and become part of popular wisdom have not in fact proved easy to reproduce. And subsequent studies have not confirmed that those who delay marshmallow gratification experience better outcomes.
There are circumstances – poverty, for example – in which eating the first marshmallow, rather than accepting the uncertain prospect of two in the future, would be the rational choice. A marshmallow in the hand is worth two in
Still, self-control is an appealing concept, even if it’s easier to describe than to practise – as the troubled psychiatrist M Scott Peck knew. His self-help classic, The Road Less Travelled, was first published 40 years ago. With its emphasis on delaying gratification, self-control and discipline, the book sold more than 10 million copies.
“Delaying gratification,” wrote Peck, “is a process of scheduling the pain and pleasure of life… It is the only decent way to live.”
Peck knew about pain and pleasure. When he died in 2005 his obituaries delighted in pointing out that the man who wrote that discipline was “the basic set of tools we require to solve life’s problems” was a gin-soaked, self-deluding, chain-smoking cannabis-puffer.
The self-described “prophet, not a saint” explored Buddhism and Sufism before being baptised a Christian at the age of 43. And this compulsive adulterer explained: “There was an element of quest in my extramarital romances. I was questing, through sexual romance, at least a brief visit to God’s castle.”
We know about sex and drugs, but is it possible that technology represents a deadly new agent that erodes human self-control? Plenty of parents believe that the video game Fortnite has a strangely compelling effect on their children. All games are supposed to be fun, so you want to play them again. But there does seem to be something uncannily sticky about Fortnite.
It’s like a cross between the building game Minecraft and a “shoot ’em up”, with elements of collaboration and performance through, for example, the collection of outfits or personas called “skins”. You acquire the skins either by prospering in the game or buying them with “V-bucks” (your parent’s debit card). They give no competitive advantage and are purely for display.
The “whiplash” skin, for instance, is a muscular but voluptuous woman with cropped hair, full make up and dressed in a shiny latex suit in yellow and black. You might add a matching pickaxe or glider. “Raven” is a male hooded figure with eyes like white-hot stones, steel boots and a black feathered backpack. “Zoey” has a “candy” theme – mint-green hair in bunches, a hat studded with boiled sweets, pink miniskirt and boots decorated with Oreo-style cookies.
Boys seem as likely to opt for female skins as male. The appeal must be partly to the collecting instinct, and there’s a wealth of trainspotterish detail.
In its basic form Fortnite is a mass brawl in which 100 players jump from the “battle bus” on to an island and fight until there is only one left. Alternatively, you can play in squads or pairs (“duos”), and there’s a new mode called “Playground”, in which up to four players (usually friends in real life) battle it out with each other continually for an hour. What I have seen is that Fortnite tests self-control to its limit.
If it was a drug it would be described as extremely “reinforcing”, in that the desire to take another dose, and another, is nearly impossible to resist. This is sometimes described with alarming pseudoscientific terms like “primal feedback loop”. I do think it is legitimate to be concerned, but panicking about it – or banning it, as some parents have done – is unlikely to discourage interest in it. It might do the reverse.
No, if you really want to put your children off Fortnite, there’s only one solution. Some grown-ups advocate parents sitting down with their 13-year-old and playing the game together, as a “healthy” form of interaction (and perhaps also a covert means of controlling usage).
I can’t think of anything more calculated to put my son off Fortnite for life than if his deeply uncool dad were to rock up waving a handset and saying: “Fancy a game?”
Andrew M Brown is obituaries editor of The Daily Telegraph
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