The fall of Afghanistan and the marshmallow test

The marshmallow test

US Troops left Afghanistan this week, marking the end of a 20-year war, but also of an experiment in nation building. That experiment failed. So what’s the connection to the marshmallow test? In essence, the US was attempting to build a state built on the kind of individuals who would pass that test.

The test was the famous experiment at Stanford University by Walter Mischel, a psychology professor specializing in social psychology (one of the constituent disciplines of intercultural communication studies) to test the ability to engage in self-control and delayed gratification (offering preschoolers a marshmallow now to eat versus the option of getting 2 if they could wait 10 minutes). In follow-up studies, Mischel found that those who had been able/willing to wait were more successful later in life, doing better in school, living healthier, and becoming more prosperous.

In his book, “The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous,” Joseph Henrich, a professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, writes about how the West developed culturally (starting in Europe in the Middle Ages) through the rise of capitalism and the practice of reading to be quite different (literally “weird”) in many ways from the rest of human society. The marshmallow tests select those who fit into the WEIRD mold (i.e., Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), that is fitting into patterns of individualistic initiative, avoiding impulsive behavior, and embracing independence (outside of kinship systems). Henrich writes that experiments in social psychology, such as the marshmallow test, assume all human societies are the same, valuing traits such as long-term patience. He asserts that is not the case. In many cultures, what is valued most highly is loyalty to the expanded family or tribal unit and the acceptance of social hierarchies.

Back to Afghanistan. The US was attempting to create a state based on Western democratic principles in a culture not at all WEIRD. In fact, Afghanistan is a very different culture, with low literacy (38%) and strong tribal ties. According to a report in the Washington Post, “Built to fail“, 

Washington foolishly tried to reinvent Afghanistan in its own image by imposing a centralized democracy and a free-market economy on an ancient, tribal society that was unsuited for either…Under American tutelage, Afghan officials were exposed to newfangled concepts and tools: PowerPoint presentations, mission statements, stakeholder meetings, even appointment calendars…Under the new constitution, the Afghan president wielded far greater authority than the other two branches of government — the parliament and judiciary — and also got to appoint all the provincial governors. In short, power was centralized in the hands of one man. The rigid, U.S.-designed system conflicted with Afghan tradition, typified by a mix of decentralized power and tribal customs.

In retrospect, of course, it is easy to see what should have been done. Yet, it does seem surprising that the US State Department and Department of Defense were not aware of the profound divergences between cultures that are individualistic and those more oriented towards collectivism. If only those government officials had taken a course in intercultural communication!