The Campaign Spot

Late-Breaking Thoughts on Delayed Gratification

I’m back, and so is the Morning Jolt, now in the hands of the editors and arriving in your e-mail boxes later this morning. A taste:

Has America Lost Its Ability to Delay Gratification?

This Easter weekend, Jake Tapper talked to Rick Warren:

Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren told me that the poor economy has continued to impact his congregation, saying, “Most people would not think they’re better off economically than they were four years ago.”

While he says his church has worked to provide aid and counseling services to those in need, Warren said there is “spiritual cause” to the country’s economic and debt woes.

“The biggest problem for all of our economic problems is our inability to delay gratification,” Warren said, with individuals and the government following the attitude of, “I want it and I want it now, and I’m going to buy it even if I can’t afford it.”

If we can’t delay gratification, then our long-term outlook as a nation of individual responsibility doesn’t look too promising, does it?

Warren’s remark reminded me of this 2006 David Brooks column:

Around 1970, Walter Mischel launched a classic experiment. He left a succession of 4-year-olds in a room with a bell and a marshmallow. If they rang the bell, he would come back and they could eat the marshmallow. If, however, they didn’t ring the bell and waited for him to come back on his own, they could then have two marshmallows.

In videos of the experiment, you can see the children squirming, kicking, hiding their eyes — desperately trying to exercise self-control so they can wait and get two marshmallows. Their performance varied widely. Some broke down and rang the bell within a minute. Others lasted 15 minutes.

The children who waited longer went on to get higher SAT scores. They got into better colleges and had, on average, better adult outcomes. The children who rang the bell quickest were more likely to become bullies. They received worse teacher and parental evaluations 10 years on and were more likely to have drug problems at age 32.

The Mischel experiments are worth noting because people in the policy world spend a lot of time thinking about how to improve education, how to reduce poverty, how to make the most of the nation’s human capital. But when policy makers address these problems, they come up with structural remedies: reduce class sizes, create more charter schools, increase teacher pay, mandate universal day care, try vouchers.

The results of these structural reforms are almost always disappointingly modest. And yet policy makers rarely ever probe deeper into problems and ask the core questions, such as how do we get people to master the sort of self-control that leads to success? To ask that question is to leave the policy makers’ comfort zone — which is the world of inputs and outputs, appropriations and bureaucratic reform — and to enter the murky world of psychology and human nature.

And yet the Mischel experiments, along with everyday experience, tell us that self-control is essential. Young people who can delay gratification can sit through sometimes boring classes to get a degree. They can perform rote tasks in order to, say, master a language. They can avoid drugs and alcohol.

For people without self-control skills, however, school is a series of failed ordeals. No wonder they drop out. Life is a parade of foolish decisions: teen pregnancy, drugs, gambling, truancy and crime.

I would write more about the importance of accepting delayed gratification, but it would take too long.

ADDENDA: Jeff Greenfield: “Is there ANY prescription drug ad on TV where the side effects don’t sound WAY worse than whatever illness the drug is for?”

It’s the casual mention of “sudden death” at the end of the side effects that always gets me to stop and look up at the television with a chilled wariness. Really? That’s a ‘side’ effect, gentlemen? Because that sounds like a front-and-center effect to me.

My delay in sending it to the editors would appear to be another exercise in delayed gratification…

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