There is no doubt that saving money, eating healthy, and exercising are things we should all do to lead happy productive lives.  On the other hand – eating fast food and spending money frivolously are things that we shouldn’t do.  A few may try to argue here, but let’s say that we all agree with the statements above.  The question I’m interested in today is why people have such a hard time choosing the correct behaviors, even when they know in their minds what they should do.

It’s easy to recognize that the act of eating a greasy hamburger will not lead to long term happiness, while a different act, such as going to the gym, will lead to a healthier (and thus happier) life in the long term.  We know that going to the gym is the better choice – but all too often we find ourselves eating the hamburger.  The gym feels good over the long term, but the hamburger feels good right now.  What is it about the instant gratification of the burger that is so enticing?

The analyst side of me wants to break it down into an “expected value” equation.  If you’re presented with a simple A/B choice of eating a hamburger or going to the gym, it’s pretty easy to assign informal “pleasure values” to each choice.  Let’s say that the hamburger will lead to 10 pleasure “points” and the gym will lead to 80 pleasure “points” (on a made-up scale).  Looking at these assigned values – it seems obvious that the gym will win out every time.  The problem here is that you have to add uncertainty into the equation.  You know with 100% certainty that eating the hamburger will lead to 10 pleasure points right now.  However, you’re only 10% confident that going to the gym will lead to those 80 pleasure points (after all, you could fall off the treadmill and end up with -20 pleasure points).  Factoring in this uncertainty, the instant gratification of eating that hamburger is starting to look really good (10 pleasure points for the hamburger * 100% = 10 expected points; 80 pleasure points for the gym * 10% = 8 expected points – the burger wins here).

Thinking about this problem from a different angle – I wonder if instant gratification has always been such a big problem.  Thinking back through different generations, it seems logical that the need for instant gratification has become somewhat more pronounced as technology has advanced.  You have to figure, when the predominant form of communication was snail-mail, people were probably a bit more tolerant of delayed gratification.  Perhaps as technology has advanced it has somewhat deteriorated our self-control.  A thesis here could be that the need for instant response from our environment made the temptation of instant gratification all that more irresistible.

In addition to affecting individuals, instant gratification has also been somewhat of a problem for governments. It takes the financial know-how of an eight-year-old to look at the trend of our national debt and conclude that we’ve been somewhat suckered by instant gratification.  Why make tough compromises today when we can push them off for tomorrow?

Based on these thoughts, it’s my feeling that the patience and discipline to delay gratification will be the most important skills for the years to come.

What are your thoughts here?

Why is instant gratification so enticing?