Along with Paul’s Radio National Interview on his book the Ethical Treatment of Depression, this article won the Australasian Association of Philosophy Media Prize for 2012
Instant gratification is a powerful, but flawed, human motivator.
If you are down a blind alley searching for that perfect Christmas gift for your climate sceptic friend, you could do worse than slinging them a book on Emotional Intelligence. Why? Research is mounting that your friend is the victim of one of the brain’s many computing glitches. More particularly, he has been derailed by an emotional response that is at best unhelpful and at worst catastrophic. He has capitulated to the pleasure of the here and now.
In his recent book Brain Bugs, psychology professor Dean Buonomano summarises a wealth of evidence that when it comes to putting off rewards, many of us suck. In the most famous study, back in the 1960s, Walter Mischel sat unsuspecting toddlers at tables laid with a single marshmallow. They could eat it now or receive an extra one if they waited a short time. Some rug rats unceremoniously demolished the treat without delay, while others exercised supreme self-control and resisted temptation until the appointed moment. Follow-up of the youngsters two decades later found those who showed restraint had better college admission scores. Other studies have linked weakness of will with obesity and addiction.
From a food-gathering perspective, it is simply irrational to forgo a double treat for the sake of a few minutes’ wait. But, of course, we expect most four-year-olds to act irrationally and, in so doing, they mirror adult behaviour from our own evolutionary past. In our primordial history, when futures were predator-ridden and uncertain, it made sense to grab the food now rather than wait for a bigger, but later, chow-down. This is an example of temporal discounting, where greater rewards in the future are tagged with lesser value in virtue of their temporal distance.
Adults remain prone to temporal discounting. Given the choice of $100 now or $120 in a month, most take the money and run, sacrificing what amounts to an annual return on their one-month investment of 240 per cent. How could we be so dumb?
Read the full article in the Sydney Morning Herald here