Delayed Gratification in an On Demand World – Lunch w/ TED

Lunch with TED — By on May 13, 2010 at 10:34 am

Says Joachim de Posada to little Johnny, “Johnny, I am going to leave you here with a marshmallow, for 15 minutes. If after I come back this marshmallow is here, you will get another one. So you will have two.”

As it turns out, those 15 minutes would help researchers accurately forecast the rest of Johnny’s career.

This study demonstrates one’s capacity to delay gratification at an early age and is well known in America.  However, Joachim de Posada wondered if the results were uniquely American.  America is a nation of always-on workaholics, perhaps the results (and the results of the results) were tainted by American culture and expectations.  He replicated the study across other cultures and traditions and discovered that not only were the results the same, but also the implications of the results.  It seems universally true that roughly 1/3 of the population is capable of delaying gratification at an early age and that those who demonstrate this capacity are almost always successful.  So the take-away seems clear: if we value success, then we should value delayed gratification.

Yet, our cultural geniuses are focused on building the technology to make ours an “On-Demand” world.  Do we have a problem here?

The value in delayed gratification isn’t what it sounds like – it’s not simply in eating a marshmallow 15 minutes later.  The value comes from the good work one does while delaying gratification – from what one earns while delaying gratification.   In other words, if Johnny had waited 15 minutes but had not been told to do so and was not given an additional marshmallow then Johnny was probably just wasting his time waiting to eat the marshmallow.  In this hypothetical, delayed gratification is useless.

I propose that the value of delayed gratification is in our use of the time where we delay gratification to better ourselves or grow our investment.  I further propose that the value of On Demand is that it can help us reduce or eliminate time where “delayed gratification” is simply a waste (such as in the hypothetical above).  Therefore, where On Demand technology helps us eliminate wasted time, it does not conflict with the value derived from delayed gratification.

Consider video On Demand.  The 30 minutes it takes one to drive to the video store, find, rent, and bring a movie home is probably not profitable for anything – it’s simply 30 minutes of your life you’ll never get back.  Video on demand helps one cut out the wasted trip to the movie store and gives one opportunity to immediately enjoy time that is valuable: watching a movie with friends or family.

On Demand technology that is dangerous is that technology that would take from us time or opportunity valuable for cultivating habits of self-responsibility, hard work, or the cultivation of some virtue.  Imagine a program that solved tough moral questions On Demand; one would plug a moral dilemma into the program and out would pop an answer.  “Should I steal from the rich to give to the poor?”  (computing… computing) “No.”  If one were to simply let this technology answer one’s toughest moral dilemmas without ever having thought through the dilemmas for oneself, it would have a devastating impact on one’s own moral life.  One would be morally immature and unequipped to operate well with others in community independent of one’s technological moral compass.

The place where On Demand technology crosses the line is pretty clear when one considers my hypothetical technological moral compass, but it’s less clear when it comes to technology like television On Demand in a hand-held device.  For example, this past weekend my little cousin watched television on his mom’s cell phone while the family was gathered for dinner to celebrate Mother’s Day.  Would he have been better served if he had delayed the gratification he felt from watching television and, instead, taken dinner time to spend with mom, grandma, and great-grandma?  Perhaps.  He’s only 3 years old so perhaps distracting him with television was valuable for other reasons!

What do you think?  Do you think that delayed gratification and On Demand are incompatible?  Do you think my proposed metric for measuring the value of On Demand is fair and valid?  Do you have a metric of your own?  I’d love to hear your ideas! ‘


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