Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Running to Stay Still: The Vice of Delayed Gratification

We’ve all heard of the Marshmallow Test. Put a kid in a room with a marshmallow on a plate in front of them. Tell them that they can eat that marshmallow now, if they want, but if they can refrain from eating it for ten minutes, you’ll give them three. Then leave the room and see what happens. Invented by Walter Mischel and his colleagues back in the 1960s, the Marshmallow Test was intended to be a test for self control. Could children delay gratification for that long? What strategies would they use to resist temptation?

Although the Marshmallow Test was interesting in its own right, it only gained notoriety when Mischel and colleagues performed follow up studies on the original experimental cohort. They discovered that the children who were able to delay gratification were far more successful in later life: they had higher rates of educational attainment, lower rates of obesity and so on. The inference was obvious: the capacity to delay gratification was the key to success (with the obvious caveat that this is a statistical trends, not an immutable law).

This feels right. We are taught from an early age that delayed gratification is the sine qua non of getting ahead. Study hard for 15+ years and you might get a decent entry-level job. Struggle through years of low-paid, contingent, grunt work, and you might get a full-time gig. Put in long hours, show-up, suck-up, and you might eventually be able to afford a house. The rewards always lie in the future; the graft is always in the present.

Is this really the best way to live? It seems right to suggest that the best things in life take time and effort — that we shouldn’t always satisfy our immediate lusts and longings. But there must be some upper limit to this? Surely we can’t delay gratification forever? In the remainder of this post I want to consider this issue by looking at something the philosopher Iddo Landau writes about in his recent book Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World. Following him, I want to argue that delayed gratification has a dark side: it can make our lives less meaningful.

1. Meaning and the Paradox of the End
Landau’s book discusses many of the obstacles to meaning in life. Landau is — as Campbell and Nyholm point out in their review of his work — like an inverse-Schopenhauer: where Schopenhauer was thoroughgoing pessimist, Landau is an irrepressible optimist. Contrary to the many meaning sceptics, Landau thinks it is possible to find meaning in life, as long as we avoid the mistake of perfectionism (i.e. looking for an ideal or perfect form of meaning). His book explores this possibility by critically assessing the many objections to meaningfulness.

One of the objections he considers is the ‘Paradox of the End’. The name seems to be original to Landau but the idea underlying the objection is a familiar one. We usually think of our lives as a series of means-ends projects. I go to college to study to get a degree. I train hard for months to run a marathon. The awarding of the degree and the completion of the marathon are the ‘ends’; the studying and training are the ‘means’. Some ends are relatively trivial — saving enough money to buy a nice meal out — others are grand and important — toiling for years at a laboratory bench in order to discover the latest scientific breakthrough. The pursuit of grand and important ends is usually thought to be central to the good life. Orienting our activities towards ends is what gives shape and purpose to our lives.

But what happens if we achieve our ends? Far from making our lives more meaningful, some people have argued that such achievements actually rob our lives of meaning. We are invariably disappointed by our achievements. They are never quite as a good as we hoped. Once we have achieved them, we quickly move on to the next project — like junkies searching for the next hit. There are many bits of folk wisdom that reinforce this belief — ‘the anticipation of something is better than actually having it’, ‘it’s all about the journey, not the destination’ — and there are some philosophers who seem to have believed in it. Landau cites the famous example of John Stuart Mill. Trained from an early age by his father to be the leader of the utilitarian movement, Mill had a complete breakdown in his early adulthood when he contemplated what would happen if he actually succeeded in this project:

I had what might be truly called an object in life; to be a reformer of the world…[Later] it occurred to me to put the question directly to myself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realised; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant; would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered, “No!”. At this my heart sank within me… 
(Mill, Autobiography)

Of course, Mill never achieved his goal. One could, consequently, dismiss his depression as a recognition of the difficulty (and perhaps impossibility) of his task. But you cannot dismiss all such episodes. I can speak from personal experience. I have often set myself goals and, when I have achieved them, felt surprisingly underwhelmed as a result. I always have to move on to the next thing, hoping it will bring me some measure of satisfaction.

This sense that the achievement of ends is undesirable is the essence of the ‘Paradox of the End’. Landau explores several different ways of formulating it, but here’s my preferred version:

Paradox of the End: The pursuit of ends seems to be essential to give our lives purpose/meaning but the achievement of ends seems to strip this away.

Technically, there is no strict paradox here (in the sense of two logically contradictory statements). But there is definitely something odd going on. How could it be that directing ourselves towards ends is essential to meaning but the attainment of them is not? Should we engage in acts of self-sabotage in order to prevent the attainment of goals? Should we constantly delay gratification?

2. Escaping the Paradox and Avoiding Delayed Reward
Landau offers two main responses to the paradox. The first is to argue that the paradox only arises in some cases and that its proponents overlook or ignore the cases to which it does not apply. The second is to argue that even in those cases in which it does arise it is often our education/indoctrination that is to blame for its persistence. Let’s consider both of these responses in more detail.

Think about the goals you have achieved in your own life. Were you always dissatisfied when you achieved them? Landau argues that this is unlikely, at least not when we consider all the projects that make up a typical human life. He gives a few examples of ends that people generally feel proud of once attained and whose worth does not seem to diminish in the rear-view mirror of memory. One example is ‘having raised children successfully’ (though I’m curious as to what ’success’ means here) another is ‘having been part of helpful social or political movements’ (Landau 2017, 150). People’s enjoyment of these ends remains relatively constant over time. Similarly, Landau argues that the paradox does not arise in the case of ‘regulative goals’, i.e. goals that serve as ideals which we approximate over time but never quite achieve. For example, trying to be a more moral person, or to learn and understand more about the world. We can never hope to achieve moral perfection or complete understanding, but we can get better and this provides a constant source of motivation and direction in life. Finally, Landau argues that the paradox does not arise for non-instrumental activities, i.e. activities that are performed for their own sake because they are intrinsically rewarding. Experiencing beauty in the world around you, listening to uplifting music, engaging in deep conversations with your family, are all examples of this sort of activity. There is no goal to be achieved here but there is plenty of value.

The more interesting response, at least to me, is the second one: that even in the cases where the paradox appears to have some bite, it is our education/indoctrination that is to blame for its persistence. This is where we return to the Marshmallow Test and the dark side of delayed gratification. As Landau puts it:

…the paradox is not a constant in human life. It is, rather, a variable that can be changed — the result of several factors that can be largely controlled. Many of these factors are related to education: there are several problematic elements in education that exacerbate the tendency to undervalue achieved ends, and changing these elements will decrease the extent to which the paradox is experienced. 
(Landau 2017, 153)

So what are these ‘elements’ that need to changed? There are at least four mentioned by Landau, though they are all variations on the same thing. The first is ‘workaholism’. This is something that often gets trained into us at school and in early adulthood. We believe that we should always be working; that if we aren’t working we are wasting time. The guilt at not writing and researching — often experienced by academics — is a good example of this. The problem with workaholism is that it encourages us to undervalue achievements, not to rest for a moment to enjoy what we have, to always move on to the next thing. The second element is ‘stinginess with compliments’, which Landau argues is a common feature of modern education. Teachers don’t want to students to become complacent or lazy; they want to train them to develop a ‘growth mindset’ and to have more ‘grit’. This means they always highlight things that students could improve, rather than what they have done well, when giving feedback. Again, this encourages dissatisfaction with achievements because we are trained to find some fault in what we have done. The third element is ‘hyper-competitiveness’. We are often ranked relative to our peers and encouraged to interpret our successes relative to theirs. This is a surefire path to constant dissatisfaction because there is probably always someone out there who is better than you in some respect: there is always something they have that you do not. The fourth element is ‘overstating future rewards’, i.e. selling people a future that will always fail to live up to the hype. This is another surefire path to dissatisfaction.

These four elements contribute to a culture in which people become too good at delaying gratification and as a result experience a constant listlessness. They can never feel happy with what they’ve got. The conclusion, for Landau, is that if we moderated our educational and cultural environment to reduce or eliminate these four elements, we could mitigate the paradox of the end.

3. Conclusion
There are other factors affecting the paradox of the end. Landau mentions several in his book, including our tendency to mis-estimate rewards and to confuse waning satisfaction with a lack of genuine reward. I’ve dwelt on the delayed gratification/delayed reward angle here because it’s the part I found most insightful. It rings true to my own experiences. I feel like I am often guilty of workaholism and hyper-competitiveness and that this breeds a constant sense of dissatisfaction with what I do. I am always reluctant to celebrate any of my personal achievements (to the extent that I have had any) or to recategorise them as non-achievements as soon as they are done. I also worry that this is something that I am passing on to others. It’s safe to say that I am pretty stingy when it comes to compliments on student assessments: I’m constantly searching for the flaws and not the strengths. This is my natural mode of thought. It is a habit that has become deeply ingrained.

So I think there is much wisdom in what Landau has to say. There is a vicious side to delayed gratification and we would be well advised to avoid it. That said, I’m not sure what the best response to it is. The most obvious would be to steer a middle-course, to avoid the vice of immediate gratification as well as the vice of delayed gratification. But what is that middle course? Should we have any ambitions at all? The natural thing to say is that we should, but we should have them in moderation, and avoid becoming so tunnel-visioned that we cannot stop to smell the roses (or whatever your preferred cliche is) from time to time. But that strikes me as being too obvious. I wonder whether there is something in the logic of Landau’s (and other’s) philosophical assessment that suggests that a life of ambition is not the best course to steer? I’ll take up that question in a subsequent post.


  1. As a chronic procrastinator, I find anti-workaholism silly.
    You can always take a vacation and reconsider, and you'll have many people encouraging you.
    If you're always on vacation, you can't just go work to fix it.
    It's ultimately more beneficial to be a workaholic than not.