Why do we delay gratification even when there is no downside?

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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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  1. Maybe we enjoy projecting control to others sometimes. 
    If doing these activities is zero sum over time, it’s not clear why we should care whether people delay.

  2. I like to keep interesting books around unread because of the pleasure of anticipation. Sometimes I look forward to a book, and get pleasure from this, and then find the book eventually disappointing. Delaying possible disappointment is another aspect of this.

  3. (1)  The young feel immortal – why bother with insurance? 
    (2)  When anyone mentions motorbikes, I have a 
    tendency to wonder whether they have ever owned one.  A powerful thing, tacit knowledge.

  4. I often delay reading a book I beieve I will really like until I have a quiet couple of hours to spend in a recliner with a glass of wine nearby.  That is, sometimes one delays a guilt-free pleasure because the pleasure will be greater when we later enjoy it — it will earn interest. 
    OK, I just read the article.  How crappy it is.  The following paragraph describes perfectly rational behavior as long as you believe that visiting landmarks is really valuable the first time and then not so much the second (and does anyone really want to visit that goofy obelisque in DC twice?).  The author doesn’t seem to see how drastically the last two sentences undermine his point.  People put off doing things until the opportunity cost is zero.  People do things right before the cost of doing them goes way up.  How irrational! 
    Why, for instance, is it so hard to find time to visit landmarks in your own backyard? People who have moved to Chicago, Dallas and London get to fewer local landmarks during their entire first year than the typical tourist visits during a two-week stay, according to a study conducted by Suzanne B. Shu and Ayelet Gneezy, who are professors of marketing at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of California, San Diego, respectively. The Chicagoans in the study had visited more landmarks in other cities than in their own, and even their relatively small amount of local sightseeing was done mainly in the course of entertaining out-of-towners. Otherwise, the only time Chicagoans rushed to see the local landmarks was just before they were about to move to another city, when that deadline inspired sudden passions for taking architectural tours and going to the zoo. 
    Probably the underlying literature is better than the article, but the article is unconvincing.  Maybe the reason the US has such a low savings rate is that people keep delaying the gratification associated with paying off their credit cards!

  5. In “The 10,000 Year Explosion” Chochran and Harpending argue that delayed gratification is a relatively recent trait. Hunter gatherers get no benefit, perhaps even cost, so they are best to eat what they get, when they get it, and share any excess. 
    Agriculture turned that all around. Suddenly there was benefit, even necessity for delayed gratification, and a very strong selection pressure appeared. People who could successfully juggle future events had a decided advantage. They were the ones who acquired wealth, and mating opportunities. 
    Now what happens, I suspect, is that we have such a strong pattern of behavior that even in cases where delaying does not benefit, we ‘feel good’ about the self denial (religion capitalizes on this… deny yourself now for benefit in the afterlife). 
    I see myself doing this with vacation days. I have to use them before the end of the year, but I always wind up having to ‘burn’ them because I’ve saved so many that I can’t carry over.

  6. (2)  When anyone mentions motorbikes, I have a tendency to wonder whether they have ever owned one.

  7. I was suggesting that opportunity costs might explain why people delay indulgence. Redeeming a gift card, for example, takes time and effort. Perhaps you delay it until you have free time and energy? Perhaps you are saving it for a time when you can really enjoy it? Can you imagine a person in a store with the coupon in hand, seeing exactly what he wants to buy, and delaying the purchase? I can’t.

  8. There is also the well known phenomenon that many people (especially the prudent) prefer lives with an upward sloping trajectory.  Contrary to naive economic theory, they would rather have increasing lifetime consumption with a “risk” (in these simple models) of NOT consuming their assets before death, as opposed to timing things so that no cent was left unspent or experience untaken at the last minute.  They would rather always feel that things are getting better and don’t want to suffer utility declines.  In the micro, micro sense this leads to postponing gratification (e.g. eating the best dish at the end of the meal or holding off drinking that great bottle of wine).  So better to risk wasting the gift card, than spending it early and having no gift card to buy stuff with if the urge arises later.