By Mihaela Tabacaru
Remember the Stanford marshmallow experiment? It`s about preschool children having to choose between the pleasure of chewing on one sugary marshmallow now, or chewing on two marshmallows an eternity (albeit 15 minutes) later.
This simple experiment has become famous mainly because of its implications for the ability to say no to a goody in the very near future, for the sake of something greater later on, also known as “delaying gratification”. This same self-control mechanism that is involved in children sacrificing immediate pleasure, also works for ex-smokers sacrificing the enjoyment of a cigarette for good health in the future, and even for the shop-o-holics resisting the temptations of mall trips, so they can save for retirement (or at least avoid trouble at home). And so on.
Yet delaying gratification is more than about self-control: it is about worldview as much as willpower. There is evidence showing that the marshmallow test also measures how much a child trusts his environment – if the researcher is really going to return with the second marshmallow. In addition to self-control, children’s wait-times are modulated by an implicit, rational decision-making process that considers environmental reliability. In other words – building trust that there is another solution that can yield results.
Delaying gratification in small scale farming
The choices farmers in Zambia need to make are similar to the marshmallow experiment. Farmers have to think short term more often than not, as they are often faced with low income and food availability: invest in fertilizers now, get a high yield, sell and get money fast. Buying fertilizers helps, yet because soil organic matter- an important source of long-term sustainability and resilience- “memorizes” in a way the farmers decisions, the outcome may be very different and unintuitive. Or, in the words of the experts, the debate in sustainable agriculture is between two apparently conflicting strategies:
- Short-term oriented activities such as fertilizer application help to cover immediate food needs, however compromise on future production.
- Long-term oriented production activities such as soil improvement (eg. by applying manure or compost or by using legumes in the crop rotation) enhance future food production, however compromise on current harvests.
The choices that farmers make in their day to day life are not informed by expert debate, but by their own perception of “rewards” in the short vs long term. The natural human here-and-now orientation, combined with a lot of uncertainties in their environment at large (unstable rainfalls, unstable political system, etc.) leaves many farmers without a real choice between “certain food now vs uncertain food in the future”.
One way of working around this bias is redefining the way one looks at the future, or shifting the burden of trust from short-term to longer-term consequences. But how can one build trust in the future? Researcher Andreas Gerber and his colleagues discovered that “experimenting” with the consequences of one’s` actions in a safe environment created aha moments for farmers that had an unexpectedly good impact, one that the researchers had not expected.
Shifting the burden of trust
Gerber and his team wanted to investigate the farming decisions that govern the long-term soil regeneration through a semi-computerized field experiment with Zambian smallholder farmers. In the experiment, farmers played a game aimed to maximize maize production by repeatedly allocating a given budget to two maize production activities: fertilizer purchases (representing a short-term oriented production strategy) and soil improvement (representing a long-term oriented production strategy).
The goal was maximizing the production of their farm over 40 years, with decisions every four years in the game. The only decision they had to make was how to allocate the revenue from selling harvested food between production inputs, meaning what to spend their money on: organic sources of nutrients through soil improvements measures or mineral fertilizers.
The problem in the game, one that farmers often face in real life, is low yields. To illustrate the choices farmers faced during the experiment we will use causal loop diagrams:
Farmers buy subsidized chemical fertilisers that give them a way to reduce the consequences of low yields for their family budget. Higher yield means higher family budget. Their choice is based on a simple , short-term, cause-and-effect chain to reduce the symptoms of a problem:
Invest in fertilizer—> higher yields. The assumption of the long term consequence is that this action will be reducing the need to invest in more fertilizer in the future.
Now this is when it gets tricky: the need for fertilizer does not diminish in time; its effect stops the minute you stop applying fertilizer. It is addictive. And if the fertilizer does not come, you are in trouble.
The fertilizer distribution system is, more often than not, unreliable: fertilizers arrive late or not at all, or when fertilizer prices increase, farmers are left with nothing. Because they have not invested in soil fertility (a source of organic fertilizer), they are not better off than when they started. Only that now they are dependent on external input for their yields (fertilizers) and have probably less knowledge on how to build and cultivate soil fertility.
…..and if nothing else is done to restore the natural fertility of the soil, the yields will decrease, so it boils down to
Invest (only) in fertilizer—> Lower yields in the long run.
This pattern is recognized in the systems thinking literature as an “archetype”: shifting the burden.
The problem (low yields) is handled by a symptomatic solution (invest in fertilizers) with immediate effect, thereby “healing the symptoms”. The primary source of the problem (a complex natural system) is overlooked, because its remedy is demanding and has no immediate solution. The fundamental solution (investing in organic sources of nutrients), if identified, does indeed lead to a decrease of the addiction to the symptomatic remedy in the long-term.
Leveraging trust in the future – seeing is believing
The shifting the burden archtype decision process is illustrative for a range of issues where you have a short term economic goal vs large sustainability implications. The results of Gerber`s experiment showed, to no surprise, that overall the farmers had a strong and significant bias towards decisions that are effective in the short-run but decrease the system resilience and the soil recovery capacity in the long-run. If they did try investing in the long term solution, increasing soil organic matter, the results were worse to begin with (a typical “worse before better” effect) , which made them quickly come back to the fertilizer solution. Like in the marshmallow experiment, the farmers do the same: they choose the sweet fertilizer (marshmallow) over the longer term investment in (not trustworthy) soil recovery because it feels safer.
The surprising element in Gerber`s experiments was that leveraging trust in the future is possible, but it takes time to build. Similar to the marshmallow experiment – is the researcher really going to return with the second marshmallow? – farmers had to build trust that the long term investment is really going to pay off in the end. When allowed to experiment in a safe environment unfolding over time (the farmers played several “years” in their game), participants had the chance to experiment and see what happened beyond what was possible to predict in real life. Data shows that most farmers prioritize mineral fertilizers, yet towards the end of the game they started investing in soil improvement.
The researchers believe the results to be partly due to experiencing the impact of their decisions, “living” with the consequences of their decisions, and allowing for the comparison and explanation of different ideas. The trick is to analyze options with an eye toward finding leverage points. Rather than attempting a perfect solution, it’s often better to find areas where an incremental change will lead to significant renovation in the system. The smallest nudge for the biggest effect. For many farmers there really was no option to begin with – fertilizers were the only solution for increasing yield. Simply having the two alternatives in front of them – invest in fertilizers or invest in soil recovering, helped the process of identifying the two different strategies.
There is no silver bullet strategy for building sustainable agriculture systems. Delaying short term gratification for the greater, but distant, good, is and will remain challenging. Yet how we frame the challenge determines a lot what solutions we will look for.
See the short term bias towards sweet marshmallows, and fertilizers, as a self-control issue, then the solution is in the hands of each individual, and we have little influence on it. Frame the same issue as a trust building exercise , and there are a multitude of ways of leveraging that trust. A clever combination of solutions, calibrated differently over time, is more likely to give optimal results.
 Celeste Kidd, Holly Palmeri,and Richard N. Aslin “Rational snacking: Young children’s decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability”. In Cognition. 2013 Jan; 126(1): 109–114.
 Kopainsky, B., Gerber, A., Lara-Arango, D., & Nyanga, P. H. (2019). Short-term versus long-term decision trade-offs: Evidence from a model-based observational experiment with African small-scale farmers. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 36(2), 215-228. doi: 10.1002/sres.2582.
 Arrows indicate the direction of causality. Signs at arrowheads indicate the polarity of a relationship: A “+” denotes that an increase in the independent variable causes the dependent variable to increase, all else equal (and a decrease causes a decrease). E.g., investing in fertilizer causes yields to increase. Similarly, “-” indicates that an increase in the independent variable causes the dependent variable to decrease.