Mattos 2022: Impulsivity Vs Endowment Effect: Analysis of the Reuven & Gad Land Request

Rabbi Nachi Friedman

Anshi Sfard 2022

In 1990, Shoda, Mischel, and Peake conducted a famous scientific experiment called the Marshmallow Test. The test measured impulsivity and self-control by placing a marshmallow in front of children and instructing them to delay eating it until the experimenter returned to the room. If the child abstained from eating the marshmallow, they were instructed that they would receive a second marshmallow. The study as well as the accompanying videos helped future studies study the impact of self-control and impulsivity. It was later correlated to increased executive functioning.

At the surface, the marshmallow test appears to have originated in this week’s parsha. Two tribes, Reuven & Gad, received beautiful land right outside of Israel. Per the Orach Chaim’s commentary on the Torah, Reuven and Gad received a large portion of the land because their tribes contributed the majority of the soldiers for the wars in those lands. Because they owned more land than everyone else, they wanted to keep it instead of going into the land of Israel. Similar to the marshmallow test impulsivity, the land on the other side of the Jordan was too desirable of a place to live, it is hard to sacrifice immediate benefit even when the future benefit (portion of the land of Israel) was promised to you. 

Furthering the critical view of these tribes, commentaries analyze the choice wording of the tribes when justifying their desire to live on the other side of the Jordan. Numbers 32:16 the tribes state גִּדְרֹ֥ת צֹ֛אן נִבְנֶ֥ה לְמִקְנֵ֖נוּ פֹּ֑ה וְעָרִ֖ים לְטַפֵּֽנוּ we will build sheepfolds for our livestock here and cities for our children. Rashi criticizes the tribes that they cared more about their money than their own children! Rashi writes that their flaw was they made the main idea secondary and the secondary idea the main. Ralbag similarly condemns their priorities, but adds that their emotions were misled by their rashness or hastiness (מהירות). 

This is troubling. After so many years of traveling, why would they stop here, right next to Israel? How could they be so short sighted? The conclusion feels strange as well. After negotiating, the compromise states that the tribes need to still help fight the battles in Israel, but can return home after the land is conquered and divided up. This took 14 year! Why would they agree to such terms?

One interesting similarity between the tribes living on the other side of the Jordan (Reuven, Gad, and half of Menashe) is that they are all first borns. Interestingly, Adler (1922) theorized that birth order and family structure impact a child. Adler notes that firstborns are typically more traditional, resilient and leaders of the family. They are less swayed by emotions and impulsivity and have a higher locus of control. Firstborns would likely pass the marshmallow test. Parenthetically, my son, the firstborn, is the only one of my children that I would wager on passing the marshmallow test. How did the first born tribes of Reuven, Gad and Manashe become swayed by non-holy land and succumb to the temptation to prioritize their sheep over their spiritual growth?

I’d like to suggest a possibility that the decision to stay on the other side of the Jordan was due to the recent influx of money/livestock. This change clouded their judgement causing this request to Moshe. The cognitive distortions generated by having money caused them to mix up their priorities and place money before their children and Israel. 

One cognitive distortion that may have played a role in their decision is the endowment effect. The endowment effect is the tendency for someone to value an object more once they own it (Thaler, 1980). Thaler writes that once one owns an object, they would value the item higher than the amount they valued the item prior to owning it. The value of something increases regardless of its objective market value merely from being owned. Carmon & Ariely (2000) illustrated the endowment effect with Duke Basketball tickets. After raffling off the last several tickets to the final Duke game of the year, the experimenters surveyed both the recipients and non-recipients of the tickets as to their perceived value of a ticket. Those that did not win only valued the tickets at $170 while the winners of the raffle valued their winning ticket at $2,400. Just merely owning the ticket increased its value. This is also the reason it is difficult to drop or trade fantasy football players that you draft early in the draft (Kennedy, 200).

Once Reuven & Gad owned and settled their land on the other side of the Jordan it became difficult for them to give it up due to the distorted and inflated value the endowment effect created. They quickly became accustomed to the luscious fields for their sheep to graze and now valued it more than any land in Israel.  

It is clear from the Torah that Gad & Reuven had incorrectly set their priorities. When they spoke they highlighted their livestock over their own children. Despite Moshe’s attempt to correct them and reversed the order, it did not sway or impact their request. This could be due to their inflated evaluation of their current land that made it difficult to move away into the unknown. Moshe’s deal with Reuven & Gad now makes more sense as he challenges them to not just help out the rest of the nation but take part of the acquisition of the rest of the land. He may have hoped that just joining in the battle would engender some desire to transition to Israel and reorganize their priorities.

On Friday we welcome in the new month of Av. As the Mishna Taanis 29a writes משנכנס אב ממעטין בשמחה when the month of Av begins we decrease our acts of rejoicing. This is the time of year we dedicate to mourning the Temple and the tragedies of the past. Culminating with Tisha Beav on the 9th day of the month, the first 8 days of Av are dedicated to times of seriousness and mourning. Despite the fun summer months dedicated to fun and excitement, it is specifically during this time that we realign and look at our priorities. May we all learn from the lessons of this week’s parsha to look beyond our cognitive biases and distortions. May we rise above the clouded judgment telling us to ignore what is truly important and focus on the trivial. Like Rashi wrote as referenced above, may we align the main idea with the main idea and the secondary with the secondary. Wishing all of you a wonderful shabbos and a meaningful month of Av. 

Rabbi Nachi Friedman

Work Cited

Adler, A. (1922). The individual psychology of Alfred Adler. New York: Harper & Row & London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Carmon, Z., & Ariely, D. (2000). Focusing on the forgone: how value can appear so different to buyers and sellers. Journal of Consumer Research, 27(3), 360–370.

Kennedy, J. (2013). Why so few trades are made in your Fantasy Football League. Forbes. Retrieved July 28, 2022, from 

Shoda, Y., Mischel, W., & Peake, P. K. (1990). Predicting adolescent cognitive and self-regulatory competencies from preschool delay of gratification: Identifying diagnostic conditions. Developmental Psychology, 26, 978–986.

Thaler, R. (1980), Toward a Positive Theory of Consumer Choice, Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 1(1) , 39–60.

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1991). Loss aversion in riskless choice: a reference-dependent model. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 106(4), 1039–1061.

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