The therapy culture has made many dubious contributions to moral philosophy. Among them is the notion of deferred gratification.
At first, one finds much to praise in the requirement that people defer gratification. The principle seems to promote self-control and to teach people not to indulge in instant gratification.
If those are the terms of the argument, one would have to agree that deferred gratification should win out over grabbing whatever is available in the present.
But, if the theory falsifies human experience by trying to fit it into a narrative, it risks leading us into error.
The struggle between an instinct that is seeking immediate gratification and an ego that believes that it is best to delay is a narrative. Those who traffic in it are trying to impose it on human beings, not to analyze how they really function.
By this narrative, children are instant gratifiers while adults have learned how to constrain and restrain their impulses, the better to find future gratification.
Many believe that the gratification awarded to those who wait is better than the instant gratification they would receive, but that is not necessarily part of the theory. It is a ploy designed to help people to exercise self-control.
It’s nice to see it all in terms of forgoing the Big Mac now and being rewarded with a steak dinner, but life rarely works out that way.
As with any narrative, this one has flaws and gaps. It precludes the possibility that people might feel good about exercising self-control. Reducing human beings to gratification-seeking organisms does them a serious injustice. Humans are also rule-followers. When they learn to follow a rule that prescribes self-control they can feel gratified at their mastery of a social skill.
Moreover, research psychologists have recently shown that the decision about deferring or not deferring is often a rational calculation. It seems that there is more to the story than the struggle between willpower and instinct.
Maria Konnikova explained the issue in a recent New York Times article:
When we think of self-control, we don’t normally see it in these terms — a reasoned decision to wait or not. In fact, the ability to delay gratification has traditionally been seen in large part as an issue of willpower: Do you have what it takes to wait it out, to choose a later — and, presumably, better — reward over an immediate, though not quite as good one? Can you forgo a brownie in service of the larger reward of losing weight, give up ready cash in favor of a later investment payoff? The immediate option is hot; you can taste it, smell it, feel it. The long-term choice is far cooler; it’s hard to picture it with quite as much color or power.
To add to the complexity, psychologists have tested the deferred gratification hypothesis against real life situations where the future reward, the payoff for deferring gratification was either more or less certain.
[Professor Joseph] Kable [of the University of Pennsylvania] who has been working on the psychology and neuroscience of decision making for more than a decade, argues that the truth is that in real life, as opposed to the lab, we aren’t nearly as sure we’ll get our promised reward, or if we do, of when it will come.
“The timing of real-world events is not always so predictable,” he and Mr. McGuire write. “Decision makers routinely wait for buses, job offers, weight loss and other outcomes characterized by significant temporal uncertainty.” Sometimes everything comes just when we expect it to, but sometimes even a usually punctual bus breaks down or an all-but-certain job offer falls through.
But what happens if our initial estimate is off? The more time passes without the expected reward — it’s been 20 minutes and still nothing; I’ve been dieting for a week and a half now and still weigh the same — the more uncertain the end becomes. Will I ever get my reward? Ever lose weight? Ever get on that stupid train?
In this situation, giving up can be a natural — indeed, a rational — response to a time frame that wasn’t properly framed to begin with, according to a series of new studies conducted by Mr. Kable’s decision neuroscience lab at the University of Pennsylvania and published in Cognition and Psychological Review.
Note well that Kable believes that abandoning the distant reward in favor of the immediate gratification might well be the “rational” choice when one comes to believe that the promised reward is not going to arrive within a reasonable time frame.
When the wait time is extended an individual will increasingly believe that the reward might never come. Then, the correct decision is to seek gratification in the present. It’s easier to forgo the Big Mac if you know you will have a steak dinner in three hours, but as the three hour mark comes and goes, the Big Mac looks more and more appetizing.
If you take a bite, you are not yielding to temptation or showing weak self-control. You are making a rational decision based on the facts as you know them.
“The basic idea,” [Penn neuroscientist Joseph] McGuire said, “is that while a decision maker is waiting, he is constantly re-evaluating the thing he’s waiting for. You’re waiting for the same reward, but your assessment of it changes as a function of the passage of time.”
This suggests that the ability to exercise self-control depends in good part on the consistency of your daily routines. If a child knows to a certainty that he will have dinner at 6:00 he will find it easier to control his impulse to snack in the afternoon. If the dinner schedule varies, even to the extreme point where he is not sure that he will even have dinner, he will be more inclined to yield to eat what he can when he can.
Thus, an inconsistent reward pattern will induce people to have less impulse control:
The researchers found that while the shoppers seeing the regular intervals looked like the very model of persistence and self-control, those seeing the erratic intervals grew increasingly less persistent over time — even if they had initially been quite patient. The uncertainty of the reward timing was itself enough to push them toward behavior that looked increasingly impulsive.