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Delayed Gratification

Who can wait longer for a reward? A human or a chimpanzee?

In an article in  Eric Jensen's November blog,  Jensen cites recent research that shows that chimpanzees can delay gratification longer than people. Here is an excerpt:     


...The study pitted 19 chimps against 40 humans in a groundbreaking experiment. What you're about to learn just may change your life...

The Research

In the study, humans were offered snack food (peanuts, M & Ms, raisins, etc.) and the chimps were offered a desirable fruit (grapes). Each "competitor" was offered two treats now OR six treats later. The chimps were willing to wait ("Good impulse control, Bonzo") for a larger treat a whopping 72% of the time. Humans were only willing to defer gratification a paltry 19% of the time! Are chimps "smarter" than humans? Well, I would argue that humans simply "outsmart themselves" much of the time (Rosati AG, et al. 2007). The humans explained that they could have "resisted" the snacks "if they really wanted to." Does this sound familiar? This leads to unhappiness over spending and weight gains, plus a lot of guilt (which often turns to depression.) So what's going on in the brain?

The brain's way of regulating motivation is through the production and release of a common neurotransmitter called dopamine. But dopamine is more the brain's way of steering and biasing you towards biologically rewarding behaviors than it is for actually having happiness. In short, dopamine is nature's way of guiding you to pleasure. A thousand years ago, happiness came from security, affiliation, status, food and sex. But today, there are countless other ways to "trick" our brain into those "time-tested" states of future pleasure (Blum, et al. 2012). We feel the pleasure in finding a bargain more than actually wearing the outfit. Pleasures include eating fatty snacks (RIGHT NOW vs. waiting), making online purchases, gambling, shopping, prescriptive (or illegal) drug usage, cheating (on taxes or your spouse), spending money (or the illusion of saving money), checking for interesting emails, and web-browsing (novelty is rewarding.)...

  ...You might be wondering what strategies can you put in place to better regulate that "pleasure-seeking dopamine" that seems to wreak havoc on your life. You're about to find out the secrets to a healthier, happier you, especially with the holidays coming up.

Practical Applications

What have we learned about our brain from the research above?

First, let's apply the lesson to the classroom, then to yourself. In the classroom, it's not the actual reward that makes kids feel motivated to do or get something. It's the promise and prediction of a good feeling that is a core "driver" of student behavior. That's why teachers who continually "hook" kids in with the promise of something fun (social, novel, exciting, status-building, challenging or otherwise beneficial) can keep kids motivated to work hard. This suggests that you practice those "buy-in" strategies. For example, "Hey kids! I just thought of something that's really weird. You want to try it out?"


Jensen goes on to suggest things we can do in our own lives to take control:

1. Instead of spur of the moment decisions, set aside a specific time to make decisions that focus on the goal. i.e. I will buy a winter coat. I will spend this much on the gift and no more.

2. When you are tempted, stop and concentrate on your breath for 2 minutes and the craving will pass.

3. Make it easier. Get rid of temptations. Remove fattening foods from the house. Plan what you will order before you get to the restaurant. Use cash instead of credit cards.

4. Do mini-workouts. A 5 minute walk or going up 2-3 flights of steps will increase your dopamine levels.

5. If you give in, don't feel guilty. Forgive yourself and just keep trying. Guilt is not a motivator.

Of course, personal improvement is always a good thing, but is there a deeper message here? 

If we learn how to control our greed for things we don't really need and avoid behaviors that are selfish, isn't this a step toward becoming a person who rejects the greed embodied in our consumer society? Won't we consume fewer resources and live more lightly on the planet? And then... perhaps we will be closer to peace.

Because isn't one of the root causes of war greed and the inability to control that greed?

 Find the complete article here

Jensen suggests these resources for further reading:

What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the   Opposite (David DiSalvo)

The Willpower Instinct (Kelly McGonigal).

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