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It’s not so much about delayed gratification as putting first things first

You likely have enough grain stored away for the winter, so leave time for a bit of a dance

Gary Goodwin

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
— Mark Twain

Twain provides great advice on how to live one’s life. I am not sure any parent gave their own child such advice, however. This seems like great advice that you give someone else’s children.

As lawyers, we might be looking out the office window and wondering what might have been. Or some of us may be looking up at the window in our new basement office wondering the same thing. It doesn’t take much in the way of imagination to visualize bars across those basement windows. But we can take solace in the fact that we are working towards the future.

But then we encounter the “marshmallow test.” You may remember hearing about this 1972 Stanford test where a marshmallow was placed in front of a child. If the child could wait 15 minutes before eating it, they obtained a second marshmallow. A small group of children that were able to wait the 15 minutes did much better at the college Standard Assessment Tests (SATs), obtained better employment, and had better body mass indexes. Their BMI was better even though they preferred twice as many calories. Apparently, delayed gratification demonstrated a potentially positive future.

Lawyers likely incorporate this little bit of psychology into everything we do — including parenting,  quite likely. Don’t give up what you want most for what you want today. No playing with friends until homework is done. Recall how the ant prepared for the winter while the grasshopper danced the summer away. When winter came, eventually the ant relented and shared its food with the grasshopper. The Aesop’s version was a bit meaner and the ant refused, saying that the grasshopper should dance away the winter. This captured Hobbes’s philosophy that life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Unfortunately, this sage bit of advice about the importance of delayed gratification does not appear to be founded on evidence.

A 2018 New York University study with ten times the number of children brought this, and the findings of the marshmallow test, into doubt. The research, which restaged the marshmallow test, found that among children whose mothers had a college degree, those who waited for a second marshmallow did no better in the long run, including in SATs, than those who did not wait. Among children whose mothers did not have college degrees, those who waited did no better than those who gave in to temptation once factors such as household income and the home environment at age three were accounted for. For those children, self-control alone couldn’t overcome economic and social disadvantages. The research offered other explanations as to why poorer children would be less motivated to wait for the second marshmallow, as daily life holds fewer guarantees for them.

This suggests more research is needed into systemic problems in society. This also suggests, irony of ironies, that psychological research may be suffering from a replication-of-results crisis. The pop psychology we have internalized may not hold up in the long run.

So, delayed gratification is not all that it is cracked up to be? How many of you still eat the majority of the cake first while delaying eating the icing for last? A better approach might be to parse out the icing evenly with each bite. This does have the downside of each bite being similar, but avoids building up to the all-icing insulin shock at the end. But we digress. Or at least I have.

Thinking of chocolate, here’s s’more thoughts on the original marshmallow test. Perhaps the child with two marshmallows may ultimately have greater contentment, but the child who ate the marshmallow first does not have any lost-opportunity costs of waiting. They will always be 15 minutes ahead of the more reticent child. Or more tritely, a marshmallow in the mouth is far better than two marshmallows on the table that you may not actually ever receive.

But of course in writing about delayed gratification — getting back to the main point — we still need to prioritize things. Legal work still has to be done. So using the standard matrix of what’s important and urgent – well, that needs to be dealt with first. Other matters that are important and perhaps not so urgent also need to be dealt with. But the rest — not important, not urgent — seem to take up most of one’s time. Believing that we need to get all of these things done must be reconsidered. These are the items that can easily be reprioritized as we seize the moment instead. The present moment is always the most important one. You likely have enough grain stored away for the winter, so leave time for a bit of a dance.

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