Life in the Time of Perpetual Marshmallow Tests

Humanity has consisted of three main eras: hunter and gather, farming, and industrial.

Each of these eras can be understood through different lenses: economic, technological, cultural, health, and so forth.

Ultimately, the driving force of each era appears to be energy production.

Hunter and gathers captured modest amounts of energy from plants and animals; farmers harnessed increased energy from agriculture; industrialists produced significantly more energy through mechanically induced chemical reactions.

How much energy each era of humanity produced,  as well as how each era had to organize itself to produce this energy, had major effects on human behaviors and values.

How much energy each era of humanity produced,  as well as how each era had to organize itself to produce this energy, also in large part defined human struggle.


In hunter and gather societies, humans struggled against pain and death. Mothers and children died during and after birth, people starved, and people killed each other at fairly high rates.

This by no means is to say that life was miserable. It may very well have been the opposite.

Food was varied, exercise was abundant, and societies were fairly equal.

So long as bouts of pain were brief and death was quick and the fear of either didn’t produce too much anxiety – well, life was probably ok.

Though we’ll likely never know or truly understand.

At the very least, the human condition was highly congruent to the human brain.

They had evolved together.


In farming societies, humans struggled against drudgery, submission, and disease.

For most, life was hard and boring.

Labor was repetitive, food was mediocre, and societal structures were highly unequal.

Moreover, disease was rampant due to higher population densities and poor sanitation.

Life for many (most?) was probably not that great.

Our brains were wired for the hunter and gatherer era, but wheat transformed society into something altogether different.

Agri(culture) leapfrogged our brains.


In industrial societies, humans increasingly struggle with abundance.

We are struggling with our own production.

Of course, many people still live in deep poverty, but these rates are decreasing rapidly, and when it’s all said and done, it may be that it was only three hundred years into the industrial era that the vast majority of people transitioned to struggling with abundance.

For those of us living in abundance, life is a perpetual marshmallow test.

Rich, middle class, or poor – we struggle with many of the same things: we eat too much sugar; we drink too much sugar and alcohol; we take too many drugs; we borrow too much many to buy too man things; we watch too much porn; we watch too much television; we overly obsess over our children; we have or attempt to have or think about too much sex; we pollute too much; we are addicted to our phones; we rewire our brains in a way that both creates a hunger for meaning *and* makes meaning ever elusive…

This is not to say that the rich and poor suffer the same – it is undeniably easier to be rich – it is only to say that we all suffer many of the same ills, even if these ills vary in severity and frequency.

Yes, tragedy still strikes, but it strikes less often.

And what strikes most often is ourselves: we fail the marshmallow tests; every day consists of hundreds of marshmallow tests, and we fail many of these tests – some cause us to gain a few pounds, some cause us to wake up hungover – some cause us to die.

We have many labels for failing marshmallow tests: addiction, hedonism, greed, laziness, immorality, thuggishness, materialism, recklessness, and so forth.

The social class of whomever fails the marshmallow test generates the label.

But all these failures are best understood as eating the marshmallow.

In this era, our production capacity is ruthlessly tailored to our brains.

We are in trench warfare and we stand on both sides of the trenches.

We are most likely better off than we were during the drudgery and submission of farming, but it is unclear if we are happier or more satisfied than our hunter and gather ancestors.

At the very least, we live longer. And we know more.

But, if ultimately happiness is a function of environmental and brain congruence, we’re still far away from home.


All this is to say: if you understand that our struggle is one of marshmallow tests, perhaps you’ll have a better chance of winning more of the tests, and perhaps you’ll have more empathy for those who fail.


What will we struggle with in the next era (if there is one)?

That’s impossible to know, of course.

My guess is that we struggle with controlling our own information. When we can copy ourselves, upload ourselves, etc. – gaining or losing information will likely have immense consequences.

But who knows?


I wrote this without citing or crediting sources.

Suffice to say, very little of the above is my own original thinking.

This post is mostly one of framing and sequencing.

Let me know what I got wrong.


2 thoughts on “Life in the Time of Perpetual Marshmallow Tests

  1. Mike

    Good post.

    At the point we struggle with abundance, we’ll struggle with lack of jobs. We already see what happens there.

    Those lucky enough to be inventors/creators of some sort will probably have much to do. But fewer truckers, nurses, cooks.

    The “anchor” so many people describe — “I feel purpose because I work hard, earn a living to support a family” — somehow would need to be replaced with “purposeful leisure.”


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