Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Why do we delay gratification even when there is no downside?   posted by agnostic @ 12/29/2009 09:10:00 PM

Earlier this year, John Tierney reviewed several studies on how delaying gratification makes us feel better in the short term by preventing guilt but makes us feel more miserable in the long term by causing regret over missed opportunities. I added my two cents here, just to note that this sounds like part of the Greg Clark story about recent genetic change in the commercial races that adapted them to the emerging mercantile societies they found themselves in. What I had in mind was the delaying of vice -- investing a dollar today rather than splurging, moderating the amount of drink or sweets you enjoy, and so on.

But now Tierney has another review of related studies which show that we delay gratification even for what should be guilt-free pleasures like redeeming a gift card, using frequent flier miles, and visiting the landmarks in your local area. And don't we all have enjoyable books and DVDs we've been putting off? After indulging in these cases, there is no potential bankruptcy, no hangover, and no tooth decay -- so why do we indiscriminately lump them in with genuine vices and put off indulging in them? Obviously this tendency too is a feature of agrarian or industrial groups -- hunter-gatherers would never leave gift cards lying around in their drawers.

It must be because of how recent the change toward delaying gratification has been. Given enough time, we might evolve a specialized module for delaying gratification in vices and another module for doing so in guilt-free pleasures, which would be better than where we are now. But when our genetic response to a change is abrupt, typically we have broad-brush solutions that take care of the intended target but also leave plenty of collateral damage. Over time our solutions get smarter, but it takes awhile. Just look at how crude the responses to malaria are.

We see this domain-general taste for (or aversion of) risk in other areas. People who lead more risky lifestyles buy much less insurance than people who lead cautious lifestyles. Those who ride motorcycles without helmets would be richer and more likely to pass on their genes if they bought a lot of insurance, while those who play it safe would be richer by not buying all that superfluous insurance. Instead, daredevils are daredevils all the way -- including a contempt for insurance.

This casts doubt on how easy it is to change our behavior so that we no longer postpone our indulgence in guilt-free pleasures. Because we have a domain-general delay of gratification, it will still just feel wrong. You can also argue the logic of buying lots of insurance to the motorcyclist who rides without a helmet, but that won't change his mind because his tastes for risk is across-the-board.

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