Friday, September 9, 2011
Discipline - Gratification Delay and Attention Span
Behavior does have consequences. One reason everyone does not behave correctly all the time is that consequences are often delayed, sometimes far into the future. This delay weakens the temporal link between cause and effect, reducing the direct threat and allowing us to “slide.”
The dimension of Discipline is all about this delay. Solid decisions, for example saving money or sticking to a diet, lead to future security, health and happiness. Doing the opposite leads to immediate good feelings but to future regrets. Do we really have an obesity epidemic, or do we have a widespread pattern of poor habits in the dimension of Discipline? Not long ago people saved for a car, a vacation or a down payment on a house. To be in debt was considered a problem, even a disgrace. Would there have been a Great Recession had people not been lured by the slick advertising? It sounded too good to be true, and it was. Don’t blame the banks; don’t blame the government. So many were unwilling to delay gratification of living “the American dream” until they could actually afford it, that the system became overloaded.
In 1972 at Stanford University they conducted the famous marshmallow experiment, placing pre-school children in a room with one marshmallow and the promise of a second marshmallow only if they could wait until the researcher returned – in approximately 20 minutes. About one-third of the children could delay gratification and win the second treat. Follow-up studies showed that these same children went on to do better in school, get higher SAT scores and were more likely to succeed in life. Are adults today doing any better than those four-year-olds? Consider that today approximately the same percentage of adults are not overweight.
Closely related to this is the issue of attention span and how we seem incapable of amusing ourselves, relying on technology to provide the solution whether by streaming video, portable audio, or media sound bites. Is our attention span slowly approaching that 140-character or less threshold? How does this combination of short attention span and inability to delay gratification contribute to our choice of leaders? When we find that our money in Washington continues to be spent on promises of unsustainable benefits by people who garner votes based on superficial qualifications (appearance, speaking ability and clever sound bytes), it gets back to individual problems in the dimension of Discipline.