What if the same choice was presented to an ape. Do you think, given a choice, apes would take the goods offered now, or wait for the bigger share?
This study found that chimpanzees were nearly 4 times more likely to wait than humans:
The Evolutionary Origins of Human Patience: Temporal Preferences in Chimpanzees, Bonobos, and Human Adults, Current Biology, 2007
Perhaps patience is not unique to humans. If there is a genetic basis, what role does learning play?
On a related note, this story made the rounds last week:
Daily Sweets 'Linked To Violence'
The study's lead investigator, Dr. Simon Moore, said:
"Our favoured explanation is that giving children sweets and chocolate regularly may stop them learning how to wait to obtain something they want.Hard to say in this case whether aggression caused impulsiveness, or impulsiveness led to more aggression. Which leads me to my original question: What role does learning play in patience? These researchers implied, in humans at least, that patience is learned, can be improved upon, and can overcome a genetic tendency.
Not being able to defer gratification may push them towards more impulsive behaviour, which is strongly associated with delinquency."
I see a lot of variables in these experiments. If you choose to be patient, to hold out for something, that may assume:
- The something you're holding out for is more valuable (or so you believe) than what you can have now.
- There is little risk in waiting (or so you believe). No one will get to it and take it away in the interim.
- The cost you have to bear (or that you envision bearing) to get the greater reward is acceptable to you.
- It's obviously a choice, you can't both have it now, and have it later.
Here's a video of the classic Marshmallow Experiment, where researchers investigated differences between those who delay gratification and those who don't. Children were told they could have either one marshmallow, or if they wait and don't eat it, they could have two. A hidden camera recorded their behavior.
Oh, The Temptation from Steve V on Vimeo.
So, what role does learning play in patience? Can patience be taught? (Was chimpanzees' ability to delay gratification learned?) While some of us may be more hard-wired to delay gratification, it's likely we can "teach ourselves how to think so that we can outsmart our desires."1 Says Walter Mischel, a psychologist who designed the original Marshmallow Experiment in the 1960s:
"If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it," Mischel says. "The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place."