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Marshmallow Policies

by Aaron Houck

May 8,2009

Psychologist Walter Mischel left four-year-old children alone in a room with a marshmallow. These children had been told that if they could avoid eating that one marshmallow until he returned, then they would receive an additional marshmallow. The behavior that is obviously “correct” (even to these small children) is to wait for the second marshmallow. Even so, most of the subjects – after a period of agony – say to themselves “what the heck!” and eat the marshmallow. 

The situation Mischel’s children found themselves in during his famous “marshmallow test” reminds me of some of the policy challenges facing the Charlotte region. We all recognize that the current way of doing certain things will not be sustainable in the long term. But – after a period of agony – we most often say “what the heck!” and continue with our current practices. 

It was this characteristic in society at large that led to the recent bubble and recession. No one thought it prudent to buy property with no money down and count on appreciation to build equity. Yet we chose to ignore the irresponsibility of such practices because our retirement funds were growing. 

Now is the time to change our ways. Can Charlotte become a city that makes difficult choices about tomorrow today? We face challenges in education, affordable housing, transportation, land use, and open space. Making change in any of these areas will not be easy or comfortable, but the decisions we make now (or avoid making now) will have long-lasting effects. 

A difficult choice is something other than a new policy document. For instance, the Planning Department is working on its “Centers, Corridors, and Wedges” growth framework that will allow city and county departments to coordinate the planning and building of infrastructure and housing to support the growth we know is coming. The development of such a framework, while certainly hard work, is not a difficult choice. The difficult choice will be to rezone – even down-zone – property in accordance with this vision for our future. Hard decisions are those that involve opposition, like that of a property owner who bought land in a “wedge” intent on developing a shopping center out of scale for such an area. Can the Charlotte region do this? 

And what can we learn from the marshmallow kids? Those that had the most success in staving off temptation adopted specific strategies. The two most successful strategies were to cover up the marshmallow and/or look away and to invent some sort of distraction. Those children who failed to develop such a strategy were left staring at a marshmallow that seemed to be getting yummier by the second!

The region’s decision makers, then, would be well advised to adopt commitment strategies for changing the status quo with regard to policies that are out-of-date or malfunctioning. These commitment strategies could be in the form of bold public announcements or the dedication of financial resources. 

One critical thing to note is that change should not be undertaken simply for change’s sake. Charlotte’s long history of boosterism often means unthinking enthusiasm instead of diligent analysis. Prudence requires a predisposition for the status quo over grandiose new plans absent a good showing of cause why the new policy should be adopted. That is, the burden of proof is on those who want change. 

Similarly, the region needs to do a better job of exploring the nuances of policies – arguments regarding Charlotte’s transit plan have been mind-numbingly simplistic as someone is either pro-transit or anti-transit with nothing in between. Those who oppose policies can play an important role in assuring that the ultimate documents and regulations are well crafted with minimal unintended consequences. But opponents have the same obligation to be well informed and thoughtful and not just oppose policies because they do not like them. 

There is nothing stopping Charlotte from becoming a city that makes difficult decisions. The payoff is potentially significant: Mischel found that those children who were able to delay gratification as four year olds later in life scored some two hundred points better on the SAT than the children who could not wait. If the Charlotte region can make difficult decisions, we can move forward toward our goal to being one of the best places to live, work, and play in the world. The marshmallows can wait.

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