Marshmallow Matters, Part 2

23 Sep

Better late than never!

This is the second part of my discussion of an article on the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment printed in my high school’s senior English textbook. Part 1 is here, while this part will be about Japanese (and American) culture.

Let’s discuss the paper’s theme: self-control. I think it’s such a crucial part of Japanese culture. During orientation last year, we were all warned to never lose our tempers, or even get visibly upset, at work. If you shout or cry at work, your colleagues will never look at you the same way again. There is little tolerance among adults for those kinds of displays, which are seen as childish.



In terms of self-control as self-discipline, I am in awe of Japanese housewives, who not only maintain spotless homes but cook healthy meals for their families (usually made of multiple dishes in small quantities). They wake up early every morning to prepare fresh bento lunches for their children and working husbands, all while eating minimal diets and never appearing in public without looking stylishly groomed.

Then there’s the idea of self-control as mind-over-matter – you’ve all heard me complain endlessly about winter at school, with its unheated rooms and skimpy student uniforms. Yet my students, colleagues and neighbors go about without ever whining, and without changing their daily routines much at all. P.E. class was still held outdoors – in shorts and t-shirts. At home, my housekeeping got pretty lackluster as the temperature fell, but I always noticed how my neighbors hung their laundry, swept exteriors, and aired out their homes as if it were a pleasant spring day.

The Japanese are famous for the word “gamman,” which is roughly translated as “endurance,” or stick-through-it-ness. (here’s an Economist article, slightly critical, about that spirit and its impact on Tohoku recovery This, too, is self-control.

What’s not so great about this emphasis on self-control is that when someone loses it, the reaction is swift and harsh. Of course, that’s how you create a society full of self-controlled people who don’t commit crime. But for an American, it’s frightening to see just how controlled everything is. It impacts everything from students’ schedules – they are at school from 8:30 to 6 or even later – to the severe punishments for their misbehaviors – kids will get hour-long lectures, rants screamed in their faces, and occasionally, shoves and slaps.

(only the boys get physical punishments; it’s astounding how hard Japanese boys and men are on one another. But that’s material for another entry!)

And in the U.S.? We definitely don’t have a handle on self-control, I think. At least, not when you look at our eating habits, our constant efforts to get in shape and self-improve, or our longing to start “simple living.” (hint: the first step is not subscribing to a magazine) Perhaps it has something to do with that famous individuality. Part of exhibiting self-control is the desire to please others, and I think Americans show that much less than the “group-oriented” Japanese.

Well, if I don’t stop here I’m afraid I never will. If anyone has actually read this far, I would LOVE to hear what you think about this topic, and about the original article that inspired it as well.

Thanks for indulging me! 😀



2 Responses to “Marshmallow Matters, Part 2”

  1. claire d. September 29, 2011 at 4:41 am #

    There is a wnyc radio show (which you can download as a podcast) called RadioLab that is often really great that once did a bit on this experiment. its not a particularly exhaustive discussion (and not one of their best episodes) but its still interesting, and since you’ve been thinking about this experiment you might want to give it a listen. you can stream it at the link below. There are also some interesting comments that touch on how limited the concept/conclusions of the experiment are.

    hope you’re doing well.

    • tarasensei September 29, 2011 at 9:56 am #

      Hey Claire! Thanks, just listened to the podcast, and it was interesting. Plus, the comments were remarkably intelligent, for Internet commentors. I particularly liked what Laura said about statistics – wish people would consider that when looking at election polls.

      Anyway, thanks for the link, and for dropping by! Hope you’re doing well, too. 🙂

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