top of page

Boris Johnson and the Marshmallow Experiment

Monday, 25th October 2021

The Marshmallow Experiment is famously a test of a child’s self-control. The child can either eat the marshmallow now, or they can wait fifteen minutes to receive a second marshmallow. Previously the test has been thought to predict a child’s later success in life, and their ability to delay gratification. But what’s recently been seen as the missing factor in this experiment is the environment that the child is raised in. If children grow up in environments where long-term gratification behaviour is rewarded, they’ll be able to resist the marshmallow. If they're raised in an environment where it’s not, where the promise of a second marshmallow is rarely guaranteed, then it makes sense to act on their impulse to eat the first marshmallow. Children in both environments are showing they’re capable of the basic economics required to maximise their reward.

This week we see the kick off of COP26, the latest UN conference pushing to find some sort of solution for the ever-increasing threat of global warming. This comes at the same time as politicians deny any need to implement Plan B in the face of the highest COVID death rate in Europe. COVID and climate change: two emergencies that are really difficult to get people to treat like an emergency.

Unlike a heart attack or a house fire, global warming isn’t something that will be over within a few hours. This is a long-term crisis, one that’s been growing over the last century and shows no sign of abating for at least the next one. But the stakes are just as high as a heart attack or a house fire - this is, indeed, life or death. And it’s already killing people.

“I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

- Greta Thunberg

Similarly, the COVID crisis is an emergency that for many people is life or death, but has lasted nearly two years so far. One that can be equally hard to remember is an emergency, when it lasts so long, when people are still getting on with their day-to-day lives, when the last thing anyone wants is another lockdown.

The UK bore witness to some of the lousiest leadership many of us had ever seen, in what is being called one of the country's worst public health failures. The government’s first strategy was, of course, to do nothing in the name of herd immunity, then to deny herd immunity ever was a strategy, to advise everyone to work from home “if you can” with no protection to prevent employers forcing their employees to come in unnecessarily, locking down too late, closing our borders too late, refusing an early 2-week circuit breaker which forced us into a 4-week lockdown, then lifting restrictions for the first couple of weeks of December only to introduce Tier 4. And let’s not forget the absolute and unwavering promise of a 5-day restriction lift for Christmas - only to be revoked at the last minute, of course. January 2021 saw children return to school for just 1 day after the Christmas holidays before the government changed its mind yet again and told us to go back to home schooling, declaring it was simply “the right time” to change track. The government’s U-turns have become so regular and predictable that the public has come to expect them as the only reliable thing coming out of Downing Street.

Thankfully the NHS’s vaccine rollout kept the headspinning changes at bay for a while. As Autumn rolled in colder weather, we have - as expected - seen a spike in COVID cases and deaths. But with this change in case levels, there has been no change in control measures to mitigate the case numbers, hospitalisations, and deaths.

The NHS confederation has asked that the Government enact Plan B - which includes factors such as mandatory mask wearing and COVID passports - to avoid ‘stumbling into a winter crisis’. But (so far) the government has remained steadfast, with cabinet minister Kwasi Kwarteng saying he thinks reversing back to a situation with lockdowns is “not necessary.” Local councils have clearly lost faith in the government, taking it upon themselves to enact their own Plan Bs.

Now, as much as one may disagree with a politician’s political leanings, we would still expect a leader - any leader, even one we didn’t vote for - to exhibit certain qualities: standing by one’s decisions, listening to scientists, the ability to plan ahead - that at least made them seem competent, even if we disagree with their policies or strategies. But Boris Johnson has shown, time and time again, a preference for no strategy. He repeatedly waits too long to act. As Yvette Cooper writes “delaying difficult decisions makes them worse.”

Rafael Behr wrote in the Guardian at the end of 2020 that “Johnson’s technique for dealing with problems is to let them run out of control, building to a point of sufficient crisis that delay is no longer viable. That way the choice becomes perversely easier because there are fewer options left. Wait long enough and there might be only one.” Unfortunately for us, the last option remaining has often been the worst one.

Take the “circuit breaker” lockdown of November 2020. We had the option to act early, to “buy more time” but it needed “balancing against the impact on the economy and society,” as James Gallagher wrote. Rather than having been weighed up as a money-saving investment, it was viewed as an expensive short-term measure. Which meant the government allowed the situation to deteriorate, resulting in a four-week long lockdown being required instead, which was certainly more expensive. Even the Conservative party, which has for so long been seen as the party that’s good with money, hasn’t been able to provide us with a leader who appears to have a basic grasp of long-term economics.  

Mike in the TV series Breaking Bad positioned this as half measures vs. full measures. He argued that if you take a half measure, which isn’t enough, you later have to take a full measure - but sometimes only after you’ve suffered the consequences of having taken too small an action in the first place. I would argue that we’re looking at full measures vs. double measures, and it goes like this: Johnson gets offered a full measure such as Plan B, which may well prevent the need for a later lockdown, and refuses it until the situation has become so dire that he has no choice but to backtrack and scramble to enact a double measure. We have seen Johnson do this time and time again. Maybe if the two week circuit-breaker had been enacted, we wouldn’t have needed four weeks. Maybe if December hadn’t kicked off with two weeks of pubs and Christmas parties in London before the capital quickly jumped to Tier 4, people could have spent Christmas with their families.

It’s simple economics. If Johnson “sells” two weeks for a lockdown early, we can afford to “buy” two weeks later. If Johnson had “sold” the first two weeks of December, we perhaps could have afforded to “buy” a five day Christmas, or at least Londoners could have spent it outside of their box bedrooms. But like the child and the marshmallow, Johnson always elects for instant gratification - even when it results in being the more expensive option.

And even when it results in more misery for us, less popularity for him, and more blood on his hands.

When we take a look at the UK’s response to the climate emergency, we should hardly be surprised by the fact that a man who went to Eton is incapable of this kind of long-term economics. Just this week the BBC reported that fossil fuel production is set to soar between now and 2030. We repeatedly see our leaders give false promises and half-hearted targets that they appear to have no intention of meeting. And their justifications are so often financial, when the real cost of the climate crisis is set to be much higher.

As science communicator Hank Green says, “If releasing CO2 is free, people don’t have any reason not to do it. But it’s actually not free. It’s going to cost a tremendous amount of money to deal with the consequences of the emission of that carbon. But that money isn’t being paid by the people producing the emissions or the people consuming the energy, the gasoline, the steel, the concrete that create the emissions; those costs will be borne by people in the future, and they will be wildfires and droughts and famines and wars and refugees and sea level rise. All of those are costs that are not being priced in.”

The budgets in Johnson’s head have an expiry date, after which point he stops putting costs into the equation. The future financial cost of the implications of climate change, of disaster response right here in the UK, of the houses that will be washed away, of the lives that will be lost, the cost to families, the price of losing members of the workforce, the insurance claims - these will be significantly more expensive than preventative measures we could pay for today. We should be “selling” time now in order to save up, to buy time later - literal time. We’re running out of it, and Johnson’s accounting is currently allowing for fires and floods and famines. It allows for forty-degree summers which see our trains at standstill and our office alarms unsettable because the phone lines have melted. It allows for drowning and burning and extreme weather and worldwide crop failures and heat-related deaths. When Johnson budgets for short-term gratification, this is what he’s budgeting for.

Preventative measures aren’t sexy for politicians. There’s a lot of options and you don’t know what’s the right choice. They’re not popular with voters, because this doesn’t feel pressing right now, even though it is. There's always someone who points out that the worst didn’t happen as evidence that the preventative measures were unnecessary, rather than evidence that the preventative measures worked. And of course, they feel expensive. But they’re actually cheaper. And they’re urgently, crucially necessary.

But long-term gratification has not been Johnson’s strong point. He works to a four-year lifespan, thinking about what’s best for the survival of his leadership rather than the survival of his citizens. Outdone in his ability to economise for maximum reward by children in a psychology lab. At this point I cannot help but picture the man as a cartoon of himself: juvenile and Homer Simpson-esque, fumbling around for instant gratification, avoiding the hard decisions, and consistently and reliably stuffing the marshmallow into his face.

By Jenna Adams

bottom of page