Thursday, November 05, 2020

The Tyranny of Now

The November/December issue of SKEPTICAL INQUIRER contains an article by psychologist Stuart Vyse titled "COVID-19 and the Tyranny of Now." The phrase refers to our tendency to choose immediate rewards over potential future benefits. Our instincts drive us in that direction, since we evolved in environments where basing choices on short-term results made sense. There was little point in worrying about one's health in old age when one might get eaten by a saber-toothed tiger long before reaching that stage of life. Vyse's article summarizes this tendency as, "Smaller rewards in the present are chosen over larger ones in the future." Understandably, our first impulse is to go for the immediate, visible reward instead of the hypothetical future one that may or may not become reality. That's why people living in high-risk situations tend to heavily discount the future; if a young man in a dangerous neighborhood frequently sees friends and neighbors getting shot, the wisdom of long-term planning may not seem obvious to him. In the context of his physical and social enviroment, that choice makes sense.

Vyse reflects on climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic as two current high-profile examples. We have immediate experience of the inconveniences and hardships of changing our lifestyles to minimize the effects of those two phenomena. The potential rewards of self-denial, on the other hand—a return to being able to lead "normal" lives without catching the disease, a cleaner and more stable environment—exist in a future we have to take on faith. In connection with the pandemic, the fact that any effect of precautions or lack thereof shows up weeks (at least) after we change our actions makes it harder for us to judge the value of restricting our behavior. Another factor is that a drop in cases as a result of lockdowns can lead to the tempting but irrational response, "What we've been doing has worked, so now we can stop doing it" (my summary of Vyse's analysis). In short, delays are difficult. We have to make a deliberate, analytical effort to resist immediate impulses and embrace long-term gain. As Vyse quotes from an anonymous source, "If the hangover came first, nobody would drink."

Here's an article explaining this phenomenon in terms of a struggle between the logical and emotional parts of the brain:

Why Your Brain Prioritizes Instant Gratification

"The researchers concluded that impulsive choices happen when the emotional part of our brains triumphs over the logical one." The dopamine surge can be hard for the rational brain to resist. The article explores some methods for training oneself to forgo immediate pleasures in favor of later, larger gains, such as managing one's environment to avoid temptation.

This Wikipedia article goes into great detail about the neurological, cognitive, and psychological aspects of delayed gratification:

Delayed Gratification

It devotes a section to the famous Stanford marshmallow experiments of the 1960s and 70s, in which preschoolers were promised two marshmallows if they could resist eating a single marshmallow for a certain time span. Children who succeeded devised strategies to distract themselves or to imagine the tempting treat as something less appetizing. Interestingly, this article reports that, according to some studies, 10% more women than men have the capacity to delay gratification. It also mentions that the ability to exercise that kind of self-control may weaken in old age. "Declines in self-regulation and impulse control in old age predict corresponding declines in reward-delaying strategies...."

It's easy to think of a different reason why some elderly people may abandon the "rational" course of postponing rewards. The choice not to delay gratification may result from a perfectly sensible cost-benefit calculation, rather than surrender to the "emotional brain." In the absence of a diagnosed medical condition that poses an immediate, specific danger, if you're over 90 do you really care whether too much ice cream might make you gain weight or too much steak increase your cholesterol?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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