Thursday, October 21, 2010

Delayed Gratification

“Subsidizing the markers of status doesn’t produce the character traits that result in that status; it undermines them.” - Reynold's Law

The following quote from Instapundit is very insightful and worth considering...,
"The government decides to try to increase the middle class by subsidizing things that middle class people have: If middle-class people go to college and own homes, then surely if more people go to college and own homes, we’ll have more middle-class people. But homeownership and college aren’t causes of middle-class status, they’re markers for possessing the kinds of traits — self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, etc. — that let you enter, and stay, in the middle class. Subsidizing the markers doesn’t produce the traits; if anything, it undermines them."
This the second time in a week I've seen a reference to the importance of delayed gratification to success in life. You may be familiar with the famous Marshmallow Study. In the 1960's Stanford University psychology researcher Michael Mischel offered hungry 4-year-olds a marshmallow, but told them that if they could wait for the experimenter to return (about 15 minutes), they could have two marshmallows. The results were quite mixed and recreations of the test are fun to watch on YouTube (search for marshmallow study). A third of the kids devour the marshmallow the moment the researcher leaves the room. Another third are undecided - they stare at it, lick it, touch it, put it in and out of their mouth before giving in to temptation. A final third are able to wait the 15 minutes.

What makes the study famous is the follow-up after the test subjects graduated high school. The differences were dramatic:
"The resisters were more positive, self-motivating, persistent in the face of difficulties, and able to delay gratification in pursuit of their goals. They had the habits of successful people which resulted in more successful marriages, higher incomes, greater career satisfaction, better health, and more fulfilling lives than most of the population.
Those having grabbed the marshmallow were more troubled, stubborn and indecisive, mistrustful, less self-confident, and still could not put off gratification. They had trouble subordinating immediate impulses to achieve long-range goals. When it was time to study for the big test, they tended to get distracted into doing activities that brought instant gratifciation This impulse followed them throughout their lives and resulted in unsucessful marriages, low job satisfaction and income, bad health, and frustrating lives."
The failure of delayed gratification can be seen everywhere and is a leading cause of family poverty. About 65% of young people have sex by the time they finish high school. (This is same 2/3 who can not wait for marshmallows.) Clinton domestic policy advisor William Galston famously said “Avoiding family poverty requires three things: 1) finish high-school, 2) marry before having children and 3) marry after the age of 20. Only 8 percent of families who do this are poor, while 79 percent of those who fail to do this are poor."

See Ten Things Teens Should Know About Marriage.

Note that all three goals cited by Galston required delayed gratification and discipline. Ditto for the secret of staying out of debt, "Spend less than you earn".

Bottom Line

Charity handouts and government subsidies are life-savers as a one time thing when a family is in dire straits. But when subsidies are freely given to all (or worse yet given only to those who spend themselves into poverty), then the good intentions backfire and discourge discipline, hard-work, and savings.

Some studies are showing that a many as one million unemployed workers are choosing to stay unemployed so long the unemployment benefits keep coming. Why work when you don't have too? Likewise Welfare is a life choice for some. Through the Red Cross I met one family that was third generation Welfare living together; pooling their Welfare checks to live a decent life without working.

I'm reminded of the difference between cats and dogs. Dogs gulp all the food given them. Cats eat only what they want and come back later to finish it. Dogs are utterly loyal to and dependent upon the food giver. Cats are more independent. Our cats often catch their own food outdoors even though we provide moist food twice a day and plenty of dry food. 

Governments (old and new) rely on the "dogs" to keep them in power; loyalty and votes are "bought" with hand outs to people who "want it now" . Though this may be good for the rulers, it is bad policy for a nation.

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