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The Whippet #32: “I wonder if there are any catfish in this pond?"

McKinley Valentine — 9 min read

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Good morning, blue angels!

Today we are talking about

Different interpretations of the marshmallow test.

The sweetest joy in life is to hear a convincing counter-interpretation of something you thought you already had a thorough interpretation of. The second sweetest joy in life is a marshmallow.

[Note none of this is original thought on my part]

The marshmallow test
Kids are put in a room by a researcher. There is a marshmallow on a plate in front of them. Researcher tells the kid: you can have this marshmallow right now; it's yours. BUT, if you can wait for a while (usually around 15 minutes) you get more marshmallows. Years later, the kids who were more successful at waiting for the bonus marshmallows had better school results, higher incomes, etc.

Interpretation: Willpower
It's a test of the ability to delay gratification, which is basically willpower, and of course kids with the strongest willpower/discipline are the most successful adults.

Interpretation: Strategies & skills
The researchers observed that some would "cover their eyes with their hands or turn around so that they can't see the tray, others start kicking the desk, or tug on their pigtails, or stroke the marshmallow as if it were a tiny stuffed animal," while others would simply eat the marshmallow as soon as the researchers left.
In other words, they didn't just use sheer willpower, they had developed or been taught strategies to make it easier to resist the urge, such as distracting themselves and removing the temptation by not looking at it. That's closer to the approach experts on this stuff recommend now: if you can't stop yourself eating a whole pack of caramel popcorn in one go, don't keep it in the house. Telling yourself that NEXT time you'll only eat a handful, you'll be strong enough, is setting yourself for failure. Don't just expect to do better; learn how to do better.

Interpretation: Trust
If you didn't trust the researcher to follow through on their promise, why would you bother waiting for the so-called bonus marshmallows? Why not eat what you can get right now? And it's probably fair to say that little kids who don't trust authority figures to keep promises are probably kids with less secure, positive upbringings, right? Which would be the relevant factor in them being less successful as adults. Sort apocalyptic hedonism on a small scale. And, in fact, having an absent father is a strong indication that you'll do badly on the marshmallow test.

This is where the idea of 'abundance mentality' comes in (as opposed to scarcity mentality). If you act as though there will always be enough money, recognition and love for everyone, regardless of whether it's true or not, you are likelier to make healthier, more long-term decisions.

(Some versions of the marshmallow test have foreseen this issue and worked to build more trust first - but not all of them.)

Most tragically named animal

This cutie is an Edible Dormouse. That's what it's called. It's called that because it's edible (primarily by the Romans). Cool edible dormouse fact: it can secrete sticky stuff from its paws to help it climb better. It's the only species of its genius so its Latin name is Glis glis.

Tragic wikipedia page full of pathos (mainly just a bunch of sentences like 'The edible dormouse inhabits decidious forests...'

(from webcomic Achewood)

Fantastic Beasts and How to Rank Them

This excellent, wandering long read from the New Yorker starts by discussing how strange it is that, even though we all acknowledge mermaids etc. to be mythical - not existing and totally impossible - and even though we know 'impossible' is a binary (something is either possible or impossible), we can nevertheless rank 100% impossible creatures according to degree of impossibility.

"One of the strangest things about the human mind is that it can reason about unreasonable things. It is possible, for example, to calculate the speed at which the sleigh would have to travel for Santa Claus to deliver all those gifts on Christmas Eve. It is possible to assess the ratio of a dragon’s wings to its body to determine if it could fly. And it is possible to decide that a yeti is more likely to exist than a leprechaun, even if you think that the likelihood of either of them existing is precisely zero.

"In fact, it is not only possible; it is fun. Take the following list of supernatural beings:

  • Angels
  • Demons
  • Dragons
  • Pixies
  • Ghosts
  • Harpies
  • Elves
  • Mermaids
  • Loch Ness monster
  • Leviathan
  • Giants
  • Pegasus
  • Centaurs
  • Unicorns
  • Tooth fairy
  • Phoenix
  • Werewolves
  • Vampires
  • Genies
  • Zombies

"We are interested here not in whether they are real but in to what extent they seem as if they could be."

It then deconstructs what we base our decisions on. Similarity to an existing animal? Whether it could plausibly have gone this long without being captured? To what degree does it break the laws of physics - does it have magical powers beyond just existing when it shouldn't? (Sidenote: A giraffe is much stranger than a unicorn, but it exists, so it doesn't impress us as much. If unicorns existed we wouldn't care about them at all.) Linnaeus, who created the original animal taxonomy system that we now use, thought pelicans and antelopes were probably an urban legend.

"You can play this game forever, with any given set of magical powers. Controlling the elements, for instance, seems considerably harder than controlling an animal (unless, perhaps, it is a cat)—but, if you are going to try to control the elements, summoning a breeze seems easier than turning night to day. If you’re going to work magic on your own body, becoming invisible seems more plausible than transmogrifying, perhaps because of the abundance of everyday ways to conceal ourselves. Yet, if transmogrification is going to occur, I’d wager that it is easier to turn oneself into a wolf than one’s enemy into a toad."

"As it happens, intuitions like these are broadly shared—a fact we know because, speaking of implausible things, two cognitive scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have shown it. In 2015 they asked two hundred people, ranging in age from eighteen to eighty-three, to rank ten magic spells in order of difficulty. Since amphibians in magic have roughly the same status as rodents in science, all the spells featured things a sorcerer could do to a frog: conjure it into existence, conjure it out of existence, teleport it, levitate it, change its color, double its size, turn it into two frogs, turn it into a mouse, turn it to stone, and turn it invisible."

I cannot recommend the article highly enough: it's a way of looking at how cognition works, how we develop mental models, etc etc - and also heaps of other adjacent areas: the importance of plausible impossibility when writing fiction, the introduction of plausible art and animation styles to Disney cartoons (like making sure a witch on a broomstick is buffeted by the wind).

Read full article at the New Yorker - the author also won the Pulitzer Prize for the piece on what if Yellowstone erupted, which went viral last year.

Source: The Denham Tracts, 'a series of pamphlets and jottings on folklore, fifty-four in all, collected between 1846 and 1859 by Michael Aislabie Denham, a Yorkshire tradesman' [Wikipedia].

Blue Glaucus fights you with stolen weapons

The blue glaucus (aka blue angel, blue dragon, sea swallow, or blue ocean slug) feeds on Portuguese Man o' Wars / bluebottles (which it turns out aren't actually jellyfish, they're 'siphonovores', tmyk). Rather than digest the stinging cells, it stored them in its own tissues and uses them to poison predators. In fact because it's able to concentrate the stinging cells, it can be more powerful than the sting of the Man o' War itself. The blanket octopus also rips out their stingers and uses them as weapons.

It's also got gorgeous camouflage: blue on top to look like the ocean to passing birds, silver on the bottom to look like the reflected underside of the surface to passing fish. Who would all get stung if they tried to eat it anyway, so it's probably an overinvestment.

Wikipedia. This photo is from Bronte Beach in Sydney, so local!)

Your Catfish Friend

Richard Brautigan (1935–1984)

If I were to live my life  in catfish forms in scaffolds of skin and whiskers  at the bottom of a pond  and you were to come by     one evening when the moon was shining  down into my dark home  and stand there at the edge     of my affection and think, “It’s beautiful  here by this pond.  I wish     somebody loved me," I’d love you and be your catfish  friend and drive such lonely  thoughts from your mind  and suddenly you would be    at peace, and ask yourself, “I wonder  if there are any catfish  in this pond?  It seems like  a perfect place for them.”

Unsolicited Advice

Being laid-back and not taking things personally: pros and cons

This is not advice, more general emotional intelligence/awareness stuff that I'm learning about and maybe it will be helpful to you too. (And I'm talking about with your loved ones. That is, I'm talking about not taking personally things that actually are personal.)

I'm an anxious-ish person with some fairly specific preference for how I want things in my daily life to be and I tend to date people who are pretty easy-going and happy to roll along with that. This is a common pattern; I'm sure you've seen it or are in it.

And I think it's probably common to assume 'not taking things personally' and being easy-going is the better way to be. With strangers, yes, absolutely, but with loved ones it's more of a trade-off.

Major Pro
Apart from trivial stuff, like you will probably get to sit in the seat you want in a restaurant because they don't care (back to the wall, not in line with the door so you don't feel a draft when it opens), being around someone who doesn't take things personally is incredibly safe and liberating (safe and liberating are basically the same: when you feel safe, you can do/say whatever because you're not afraid of the consequences). You can share how you're feeling even if it's difficult because it probably won't hurt their feelings or bring down their mood. It's hard to overstate how powerful that is.

Major Con
It can feel like they don't care, which creates disconnection and is a barrier to intimacy. "How can you be so relaxed about this - doesn't this matter to you? And if it doesn't matter, does that mean I don't matter to you?" (For sure do not phrase things like that out loud! But it's how the thinking runs). Again, I'm not talking about trivial things, but things that really are personal and serious. When you're panicking about something in your relationship, and your partner is not, it can feel like they don't really care if your relationship is under threat. Which is obviously super-painful, or would be if it were true. But it's more that they feel confident that your relationship is strong and you'll be able to work things out.

I don't have a solution for this, it's just something that's likely to cause friction, but less friction if you can assume good faith from each other etc etc.

What I will say is that it's absolutely deadly to continue thinking of yourself as a laid-back person if you're not. It's okay to not be. But it's not very culturally appealing, so you might really have buried the fact that you're not, if you're not. If you find yourself saying "I'm usually pretty laid-back, except when..." then, maybe there's an 'except when', or maybe you are not that laid-back, which is okay?

This advice column by best advice columnist Captain Awkward is about it (scroll past the first bit):

"Between me and the words “We’re not having sex enough for me” or “Please don’t talk to me that way” or “I can’t come home for Christmas this year, sorry” stretched Zeno’s paradox of infinitely dividing space. I could not step into that space and say the words with my mouth and listen to the words the other person might say. I placed this weird value on being laid back and easygoing, like that is something you should always try to be. I think I’ve told people “It’s really hard to offend me or hurt my feelings, so don’t worry about (that really awful thing you just said).” My relationships with others existed in a state of almost theological pre-forgiveness.

"What I found out in therapy is that I was not all that laid back. I found out that I have a lot of rules for how I want other people to treat me." Read full post

If you want solicited advice, send questions to or just reply to this email.

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