In 1972, psychologist Walter Mischel of Stanford University conducted a study on deferred gratification that has come to be known as the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. A marshmallow was offered to each child. If the child could resist eating the marshmallow, he was promised two instead of one.
Staring at the absurd variety of different types of muesli on offer in Sainsburies I feel like the child staring at the marshmallow. What is this feeling that is subtly so compelling and yet simultaneously stultifying? Uma had to go home tired after having got stuck in a brain loop looking at the bewildering range of detergents on offer.
For all our concern for the environment the very fact that we are shopping in Sainsburies is surely proof that in the final analysis we don’t give a toss. All these straight carrots mean agribusiness, denigration of traditional farming and of soil and tonnes of wonky waste to me. So much plastic packaging destined for the guts of dying Albatross chicks on remote islands in the pacific. No doubt there are very clever people paid handsomely to convince that this is not the case should one publicly allege such things. But though my thinking regarding super-markets has generally been informed by paranoiac suspicion for some years it is specifically the environment of the aisle and the psychological trial of the B.O.G.O.F. offer that interests me now.
Buy one. Get one. Free.
Is the inverse of deferred gratification just this: double gratification, right now? We know it is a trick. We don’t want or need two. We just came in for one. But we are caught. One or two? The expense of one is perfectly balanced by the freeness of the other as if by magic a bar of gold is balanced in the scales by a feather. We stop and stare. There is a particular vacancy redolent of airports, a halfway place which is nowhere, between the bought one and the free one.
The Stanford Marshmallow experiment showed that the time it took for a child to give in to temptation was proportional to the age of the child. In other words our ability to defer gratification is acquired. I think this is why a visit to Sainsburies makes me so weary. The grinning Jamie Oliver public image conceals this lie. There is no balance in the B.O.G.O.F. To buy just one is now pointless. It’s two or none at all. Choose. Gratify yourself twice now and slip back into that beautiful pre-marsmallow state devoid of responsibility or bog off.