One sign of maturity in humans is the ability to defer gratification. Small children must have what they want NOW! As we become adults, to a greater or lesser extent, we are able to understand how waiting for something might improve our satisfaction on achieving it.
In 1972 researchers at Stanford did an experiment on this very subject. They selected a group of children ranging in age from 4 to 6. Each child they placed in a room where a marshmallow rested on a table. They told the child he (or she) could eat the marshmallow whenever they wanted to, but if they would refrain from eating it for 15 minutes, they would get two to eat.
The researchers discovered what they thought they would; that, as children grow older, their ability to defer gratification increases. But through a follow-up study years later they discovered something they had not anticipated. Those children who had exhibited the greatest control turned out to be better behaved and superior academically.
So it should come as no surprise that prison inmates are among the worst in this respect, none more so than the inmate Tom Henry told me about one night in our cell.
(This short story got cut from the Tom Henry manuscript as part of the editing process whereby 1,100 pages became 350 pages.)
By the time of this story Tom Henry and I were Lifers. The Lifers were an organization of inmates with long sentences. They were chartered by the prison administration as a program to help inmates learn real-world skills. The Lifers sold snack foods and articles of clothing. The Lifer salesmen stopped by each cell each night to take orders for delivery the next night. In each cell house was an oven for heating pizzas and hot sandwiches, and a cooler for keeping ice cream.
Tom Henry was the Lifer runner (cell house order taker) on one and three galleries of the South cell house. One night, upon returning to our cell from Lifer duty he told me this story.
“One of the guys on the bug gallery stopped me last night,” Tom Henry said.
“‘Hey, Lifer man.’ It was a guy who had never ordered. ‘I got fifteen dollars from a visit today. I hate going to that damn chow hall.’
“‘Okay. What do you want?’
“’What will fifteen dollars buy?’ he said. I showed him the menu. ‘I’ll have two supreme pizzas, uh, two sub sandwiches, a vanilla ice cream—pint, uh, let’s see here, uh, two ice cream sandwiches, uh, a six-pack of Pepsi. Do I have enough for that?’
“’Well, hold it a second, man,’ I said. ‘Why don’t you buy one thing each night? Then you can stay out of the chow hall several nights.’
“The guy got real mad. ‘Are you gonna friggin’ take my order or not?’
“I helped him figure out the most he could buy for fifteen dollars and I took his order.
“Tonight, I was taking Lifer orders about an hour after tonight’s food was delivered. As I passed that guy’s cell, he was standing at his door in his underwear, eyes bulging, stomach tight as a stretched drum skin, and on his top bunk was the packaging for two hot sandwiches, two pizzas, two ice cream sandwiches, and a pint of ice cream. Still on the bed was a whole pizza, minus one piece, and some Pepsi.
“‘Hey Road Dog,’ he said. ‘Want a piece of pizza?’”
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