The Art of Zooming Out: You Are a Complex System

May 8, 2020

You may have heard about the Dunning Kruger effect. If you don’t know a lot about a topic, it’s easy to overestimate how much you know. The more that you know, the more you realize: things are complicated.


The Dunning Kruger Effect: Ignorant people don’t realize how little they know.

The Dunning Kruger Effect: Ignorant people don’t realize how little they know.

Surely you’ve heard of The Marshmallow Test. If not: a researcher at Stanford named Walter Mischel began testing kids’ ability to delay gratification. In his seminal study, he placed children in front of a piece of candy. Before he left them alone with it, he told them that if they could hold off eating it until one of the researchers returned—roughly 15 minutes—they’d ultimately be rewarded with two marshmallows.

The children who were able to wait for the second marshmallow not only scored higher on their SATs, but reached higher levels of career success than their grabby peers. They were less likely to abuse substances or be obese; even their relationships were better. In a huge follow-up study 40 years after the original one, researchers found differences in how the brains of “delayers” and the “nondelayers” responded to rewards. 

\Isn’t it obvious that the ability to delay gratification is important? James Clear made that the theme in “40 Years of Stanford Research Found That People With This One Quality Are More Likely to Succeed.” Grit, the ability to delay gratification, and perseverance don’t always lead to good things, because the situation is always changing.


Life isn’t like a game of basketball. It’s more like a bizarro game of basketball where the rules are always changing without warning.  ( XKCD )

Life isn’t like a game of basketball. It’s more like a bizarro game of basketball where the rules are always changing without warning. (XKCD)

Grit, the ability to delay gratification, and perseverance don’t always lead to the best result for one simple reason: life isn’t like a game of basketball. It’s more like a bizarro game of basketball where the rules are always changing without warning. In addition, the “rules” that people follow depends on what was reinforced when they grew up and what their current situation rewards, both of which influence their expectations.

We hear much less about Mischel’s earlier tests in the southern Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Grenada, when he asked hundreds of 8 to 14-year-olds if they wanted a small candy bar now or a huge one in a week. He found a significant correlation among homes without fathers: they wanted what they could get, right now. Another study published in 1970, examining the choices of young kids in West Virginia, found the same results: that children from disadvantaged homes—whose parents were on welfare, or kids who qualified for free school lunches—were less likely to wait for larger rewards. Among those who waited, their ability to wait depended on whether or not they saw that their patience was “instrumental in earning the more valued payoff.” In other words, if they’d actually get the reward in the end.

The now-standard interpretation of why some kids couldn’t wait is to blame personal shortcomings: like impulsivity, self-control, or malfunctioning in the brain’s ability to properly weigh the benefits of that second piece of candy with the cost of waiting a bit. 


Your life - can you wait.jpg


Your life - can you wait - intervention.jpg

To see if anything could make the impulsive, grabby kids wait, researchers attempted various modifications. In one of the variations, they turned the moment after some children stated that they wanted a small reward right now into a teachable moment. “If he did not choose to delay, he was shown the three candies and told that he now would have had them if he had chosen to wait.” This single intervention—simply showing them what they would have received, if only they had waited—completely reversed the lopsided effects in later trials. “An interesting and perhaps more important analysis,” wrote researchers, “indicates that disadvantaged children cannot categorically be termed ‘nondelayers.’”

Wait. If it was a deeply personal flaw, how did they all immediately learn patience? And then why were researchers later dismayed to learn that brief “self-control interventions” didn’t last long?

Think about the last time you ordered a cup of coffee at Starbucks. Were you patient? Did you want to get in and out as fast as possible? Were you content to play on your phone while in line? Did you get testy? Were you friendly and joking with the baristas? Even though you have a baseline level of patience, overall, how we feel while waiting depends on so many things: if you’re hungry; with friends; in a rush to get to work. 

To get this whole picture of what influences our behavior, we need to zoom out. Enter systems thinking. A system is simply something defined by its boundaries and energy that has many interacting parts. You have and are a part of many systems that are all connected, like your physical being, self-concept, social circle, culture, family, and the larger communities you’re a part of—all of which influence you. Behavior is the only part of you that we see, but it’s the very last step, the tip of the iceberg.

We don’t enter psychology studies with the same mental models of how the world works. If you’re in an unstable environment, or the future isn’t clear, it’s actually smarter to take the candy bar that’s right in front of you. (Long-term survival depends on behavioral flexibility, not persistence.) 

If you want to stop bad patterns or habits, survive and thrive in uncertainty, and be able to make progress on your goals when everything around you is changing, the first step is to zoom out. Look at the big picture. Learning to wait for the candy isn’t the most important skill to learn. Knowing when to wait is.