deferred gratification for the common good

One of the most well known psychology experiment is the ‘marshmellow’ one, where kids are offered a sweet. However if they wait 15 minutes without eating it, they will receive two sweets. Stanford Marshmellow experiment It turns out that the ability to defer one’s gratification is a great predictor of positive life outcomes. Our kids are probably sick of hearing me go on about deferred gratification!

Not long ago I happened to have the radio on while Melbourne’s Lord Mayor talked about the disruption to Melbourne’s CBD that will occur during the construction of major new infrastructure. We are not talking about the odd road closure here; we’re talking about whole city blocks without utilities for months. We are talking about businesses being compensated, residents relocated etc. City Square will be a works depot.

Now we know that investment in major infrastructure is critical to maintain liveability in cities, something which we in Melbourne particularly like to talk about. But how much do we complain about the inconvenience required to get there? From road works on the Bruce Highway, to power disruptions … listen to us moan.

It’s one thing to choose to defer our gratification when we anticipate even greater personal benefit at the end. Home renovations are the classic. But what does it look like to suck up the inconvenience when the personal benefit is marginal or (at least perceived to be) non-existent?

We have heard ad infinitum that we suffer a social pathology arising from unchecked individualism. We are far enough into our collective journey to get a sniff of what comes next to correct this. Instead of being the ideological domain of hippy left wingers, we are now beginning to appreciate connectedness. We are part of systems where cause and effect are not closely related in time and space. And the systems all form part of bigger systems. Human beings are actually part of the natural system, not masters of it … etc.

So I wonder how, as this collective consciousness becomes more mainstream, we will process disruptions to our living that are in service of the common good. I wonder what the Stanford experiment equivalent might be for communities, societies or nation states that resist scoffing the marshmellow in front of us now for the sake of two in 15 years time? CBD disruptions, changed lifestyles to mitigate the affects of climate change … have we got what it will take?