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Dubious Maxims

One marshmallow now or two marshmallows later?

Dubious Maxim 1: A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

This expression may have originated in falconry, a sport that never quite made it into the Olympics, but is still popular in the Middle East. The maxim first appears in John Capgrave’s Life of St. Katharine of Alexandria, a fifteenth-century biography of the martyred saint: “It is more sekyr a byrd in your fest,” Capgrave asserts, “Than to haue three in the sky a-boue.”

Capgrave’s account of St. Katherine, who in about 305 CE defended Christianity so well at a public debate with fifty non-Christian philosophers that several of them converted to Christianity on the spot and were immediately put to death. Katherine, too, was arrested and attached to a “breaking wheel,” a large, spiked wheel that, as it turned, crushed the victim’s bones (it is this ingenious device from which we get the festive “Catherine Wheel,” to which we affix fireworks to the delight of children. She survived the wheel, and so was beheaded – milk is said to have flowed with the blood from her severed neck “as a sign,” writes Capgrave, “that martyrdom and divinity were combined” in her. In his Prologue, addressed to the deceased saint, Capgrave tells of a priest “who had grown pale through the labour of his eighteen-year search for the account of your life,” and describes how this priest travelled through many lands without learning what he needed to know to write the Life. He eventually found himself in Greece, where “at last he had a revelation – misty, dark and shrouded in clouds. In his vision, he thought he saw a worthy person clothed in fine vestments….In his hand, he held a very old book, rotten, dusty and torn, a Latin account of Katherine of Alexandria’s life. ‘Look,’ said the vision, ‘this is what you have striven for, this is your goal….Open your mouth, you must eat this book. Unless you do, you won’t achieve your desire.’ The priest took the vision’s words metaphorically and began translating the text (“eating” a book being a superb description of the work of a translator). But he died before completing his task: “He didn’t get to your passion, Lady,” writes Capgrave, “and the part about the wheel.” Capgrave’s biography, he says, is simply the completion of the earlier priest’s unfinished translation.

The thing is, neither Katherine, nor the old priest, nor Capgrave himself, seemed to have settled for the bird in the hand. They spent their lives in search of something they couldn’t even be sure existed. Katherine martyred herself for her beliefs; the old priest (if he existed, and was not a stand-in for Capgrave himself – the old “I didn’t write this book, I found it” ploy later used by novelists such as Defoe, Richardson and Edgar Allen Poe to allow readers to think they were reading nonfiction) died trying to achieve a dream, and Capgrave, well, Capgrave was a writer, and writers never settle for the bird in the hand.

And yet the expression has entered the language. Over time, three birds in the sky have become two birds in the bush, and having a bird in the fist changed from being “sekyr,” or “sicker,” related to the modern “secure,” in other words, safer, to being as good as having two birds in the offing. In any case, the meaning of the phrase seems to be that one should enjoy the pleasures one has at hand, or trust in the devil one knows ­– in the spirit of the Horatian ode urging Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero – rather than waste time seeking elusive pleasures somewhere else, or at a later date, or with an unfamiliar devil. Don’t let go of the bird in your hand trying to nab the two in the bush, or you’re likely to end up with no bird at all.

Psychological experiments conducted on children in the 1970s seemed to confirm this maxim. In the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment, Walter Michel and Ebbe Ebbesen bemusedly took fifty children from Stanford’s child-care centre and gave them a choice between instant and delayed gratification. Each child (average age around four) was left alone in a small room with a marshmallow. The child was told that he or she could eat the marshmallow any time they wanted, but if they held out for fifteen minutes they would get two marshmallows. Whether or not the four-year-olds (and some of them were as young as three and a half) had any idea of how long fifteen minutes were was not determined, but the researchers satisfied themselves that the children understood and accepted the terms. The vast majority of the children ate the marshmallow as soon as the researchers left the room. Some of them stared at it for a while, engaged in various self-restraining activities, such as singing songs, staring at the ceiling, playing with toys – one child actually put her head on her arms and went to sleep. Only a few held out for the allotted time and received the two marshmallows in the bush.

The researchers concluded two things from the experiment. One, that humans naturally prefer instant gratification of their desires – the bird in the hand – to suppressing their impulsive desires in order to reap larger gains later on. Governments and advertising agencies took note: give the people what they want now, rather than try to win them over with promises of greater benefits in the future.

But the second conclusion, which came after Michel and Ebbesen kept track of the children over some thirty years, seemed to contradict the maxim. They found that those few children who had managed to wait for the second marshmallow ended up doing better in school, developed better social skills, were less likely to become substance abusers, and were even healthier (lower BMIs, for example) than those who had gone for instant gratification and gobbled the first marshmallow. People who have the presence of mind to defer their pleasures, they concluded, are more likely to be successful in life. In other words, the two birds in the bush were sekyr than the single bird in the fist. Saving one’s money for a rainy day seemed to be a better bet than living from paycheque to paycheque.

Opting for the bird in the hand, then, can be a dubious strategy. Mischel advises against it in his 2015 book, The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control, in which he rehearses the results of his Stanford experiments and provides various exercises for improving one’s willpower. Self-distraction skills are useful for those wishing to quit drinking or smoking or playing the ponies. He points out that his 1972 test pitted two parts of the brain against each other: the limbic system, which includes the impulsive amygdala, versus the prefrontal cortex, the seat of logic, planning and problem solving. In very young children, the older limbic system develops sooner than the prefrontal cortex (as it did evolutionarily), which is why most children go for the bird in the hand: they’re unable to make logical connections to such abstract concepts as “later.” Mischel sticks to his first conclusion, that being able to delay gratification is a rare quality in humans, but contends that when self-control is learned it leads to social and economic benefits.

The question remained, though: why do some of us have more self-control than others? Mischel held that self-control leads to a better life. But might it be the other way around?

In 2018, two researchers from New York University, Greg Duncan and Haonan Quan, were skeptical of the Stanford conclusions, and decided to repeat the experiment with a larger base population. They engaged nine hundred children, from a wider range of social backgrounds than the Stanford researchers had at their disposal, and found that a child’s social and economic background played a huge role in whether the child opted for immediate rewards or delayed gratification. Children from better-off, well educated, stable families were more likely to wait out the fifteen minutes than were children from less advantaged families. The wealthy can afford to defer their pleasures: poverty, on the other hand, leads people to go for short-term rewards. It’s as though poor kids know that the two birds in the bush are either a trick or an illusion, that promises of future rewards are rarely kept, and that the lone bird in the hand right now is very likely the only one there is ever going to be.

Capitalists know that the two birds in the bush will eventually be more secure than the bird in the hand. They can keep one bird for themselves and sell the other one to the poor.


  1. Merilyn Simonds

    That maxim was used throughout the 19th century and well into the twentieth to justify the necessity of shooting a bird in order to identify it. Thank goodness for binoculars that suddenly brought those birds in the bush as close as your hand.

  2. Larry Scanlan

    SO interesting. I followed the marshmallow experiments while researching a book on the brain. Your last line made me think of something a friend of mine — a former policy analyst with the Ontario government — has been writing about in his blog. His name is John Stapleton. He’s writing about poverty in Scarborough:

    The ‘isolation dividend’ vs. the ‘isolation deficit’

    What all this means is that Scarborough is likely going to suffer more than other districts as we go into the worst part of the pandemic.

    The reason is that ‘higher income people’ with stable income will have an ‘isolation dividend” and ‘low income people’ will have an ‘isolation deficit’.

    What does this mean?

    As I said on Twitter with over 67,000 engagements:

    “Please understand that staying at home increases the expenses of the poor while decreasing expenses of middle and higher incomes. The poor miss out on food banks, meals, and drop in resources while higher incomes save on gas, home meals and entertainment.”

    More people in Scarborough will have an ‘isolation deficit’ and fewer people will have an ‘isolation dividend’.

    • Wayne Grady

      Hi Larry: I’m a little hesitant to use a phrase like “isolation dividend.” because it sounds too much like the idea that global warming, while generally not a good thing, can benefit some people who live in more northerly climates. Such a sentiment takes so little into account. But it is true that I’ve been back in the country since the middle of March, and haven’t had to buy gasoline yet. By the time I need to buy gas, it will be back up to $1.30 a litre again.

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