Monday, October 05, 2009


Think about a food you like. If I said you could have a mouthful right now, or three times that amount in 2 minutes, would you wait?

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.

Not being able to defer gratification may push them towards more impulsive behaviour, which is strongly associated with delinquency."
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.

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.
Say you want something - to lose weight, or to stop smoking. Or say the want is a collective want - to have more water available to grow crops in a region that's becoming increasingly dry. To succeed, the variables above may have to be satisfied. (Indeed, in the study at the beginning of this post, humans were more willing to wait for monetary rewards than for food. Maybe we value a bankable commodity more.)

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."
1Jonah Lehrer in Don’t! The secret of self-control, The New Yorker, May 2009


Cervantes said...

Certainly there is a component of learning in people's proclivity to delay gratification. This has been shown to vary, for example, with social class, i.e. it is influenced by our socialization as children and passed down through the generations. Human personality is shaped by genetic influences and social learning. Impulsivity and inability to delay gratification is strongly associated with school failure and antisocial behavior in young people, but it can be effectively reshaped by cognitive behavioral therapy.

Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.