What You Missed: This Week's Series on Delay of Gratification

Aug 08 2010 Published by under Links Best Served Cold, What You Missed

This week, we did a series on Delay of Gratification and Walter Mischel's classic cookie task.

If you're just getting started now, the best place to begin is with Jason's hilarious video post on the task itself.  Then onto the series:

1.  The Room: Self Control and the Classic Cookie Task

2. A Cognitive Primer: Cognitive Control and Neural Architecture

3. The Defenestration of Cookie: Throwing Cognitive Control out the Window?

4. Does Self Control Determine Class?

5. In Sum, Dear Reader

From the Melodye Files, there was a bittersweet tale of tears and triumph, circa 1989.  Then downloaded straight from Jason's brain, we had a fascinating look at historical perspectives on social development.   You might also enjoy our writerly blind item on a bed-wetting British essayist (for the curious, the answer is revealed at the end of the comments).

Still hungering for more?

Last year, Jonah Lehrer did an engaging piece for the New Yorker on Walter Mischel that should intrigue.  And given all the talk about class that got bandied about, you may be interested in hearing about "The Persistence of Poverty," by philosopher Charles Karelis (link is to Mind Hack's write up, which is a great starting point).

My friend, Jason K., has also rightly pointed out the excellent work of Harvard economist Roland Fryer, and in particular his papers "It May Not Take a Village: Increasing Achievement Among the Poor" and "Are High-Quality Schools Enough to Increase Achievement Among the Poor? Evidence from the Harlem Children’s Zone."

Signing off from the city of angels,

Melody & Jason

One response so far

  • Charles Karelis says:

    From the author of the Persistence of Poverty, a thought or two on rationalizing the reduced willingness to defer gratification observed in lower socio-economic individuals.

    I thought you or your readers might have some interest in my conceptualization of the causal impact of socio-economic status on what I'll call investing. By this I would include the child's deferring of consumption of the cookie for the sake of consuming two cookies later, as well as the deferring of current consumption by adults to purchase capital goods such as plows, fertilizer, tool-kits and so on, for the sake of increasing the yield from future labor.

    I find it helpful to think of the motivation to invest as being acted upon by vectors that push upward and vectors that push downward. When the upward vectors prevail, the behavior occurs, and when they don't, the investing doesn't occur. Often the downward pushing vectors include a rational preference for present consumption (as when the child has reason not to trust the experimenter's promise of two cookies later, or when the farmer has reason to fear his plow will be stolen, or that he will be killed in a civil war). In addition the downward vectors often include an irrational or non-utility-maximizing preference for present consumption, which seems to consist largely of either unconcern with one's future self or concern with one's future self that isn't implemented due to impulsiveness.

    The main upward pushing vectors, normally, are, first, the belief that by delaying consumption more will be available to consume in the future. (Businesspeople call this ROI or return on investment.) A second upward pushing vector that is often present is the desire to smooth consumption over time. Thus the farmer knows that if his crops fail unexpectedly he can sell his plow for food for his family, thus avoiding the big loss of utility that comes with a big dip in consumption. Note that utility loss from a consumption dip of x is normally assumed to be bigger than the utility gain from an x-sized boost in consumption (given the law of diminishing marginal utility). Hence the presumed desire to smooth consumption over time.

    So far, so good. But now consider a radical idea if you would. What if for poor people the marginal utility of consumption above subsistence is increasing rather than diminishing? In other words, what if for poor people increased consumption is about the relief of bads, not the attaining of positive pleaser goods; and bads (like pleaser goods and other stimuli) have diminishing marginal impact a la Weber Fechner? On this view, a small improvement in the objective situation of someone whose plate is piled high with troubles will not be much of an incentive. It will be like quieting one shout in a riot.

    Apply this, then, to the motivation box being acted on by the upward and downward pushing vectors. First of all, what happens to the ROI factor in the case of poor people? A small bump up in income (or number of cookies) may be worth very little, utility-wise, to someone drowning in problems; so the effort/forbearance needed to secure that bump up--which we may assume is just as big or bigger for the person drowning in problems as for everybody else--may be rationally not worth it. Second of all, what happens to the upward pressure on motivation to invest that is normally provided by the desire to smooth consumption in the case of an income dip? That too goes away for the poor person (on these assumptions), because when the marginal utility of consumption is increasing rather than diminishing, it is uneven consumption of a given amount of stuff over time, rather than even consumption of it, that will wring the greatest long-run utility from that quantity of stuff.

    (An analogy if this isn't intuitive for you: if you awoke every morning with two bee stings that would throb till night if untreated, and you were also given each day a single dose of salve that would eliminate one bee sting, would you ration the dabs of salve so that you wound up with one untreated sting each day, or would you use the dabs of salve in a 2-0-2-0 pattern over time? Almost everyone says they would use the dabs unevenly. Because the marginal utility of bads is diminishing, the marginal utility of relievers of bads is increasing; so it is rational to consume relievers unevenly.)

    These considerations seem to help rationalize the reduced amount of investment of all sorts observed in people of low socio-economic status.