Betcha Can't Eat Just One

My daughters are now at the age where they’ve discovered the corner convenience store, and what they find most convenient is a wide assortment of junk food. Being a fan of empty calories myself, I’m willing to indulge them within limits, so I’ve established as a ground rule that they can only consume one half of the tasty morsels they buy within any 24 hour period.

Imagine my surprise when I found out that they didn’t adhere to my rule. I’ve given them all of the reasons for exerting some self-discipline, but to no avail. I even told them about the goldfish I accidentally overfed as a kid, and it’s tragic end when it exploded. But the lure of the sweet and crunchy trumped my logic.

Of course it would. My daughters’ orbital frontal cortices (the area of the brain responsible for self-control) haven’t yet matured, so they’re ruled by the now. It’s what makes parenting such a joy. But it isn’t just my daughters that have difficulty delaying immediate gratification. The Stanford Marshmallow Test showed that two thirds of four year olds couldn’t control their desire to eat a marshmallow for twenty minutes, even when they were promised a second one if they could.

This goes way beyond junk food and marshmallows. The four year olds that did delay their gratification grew up to perform better on the SATs when they were teenagers and enjoyed greater career success as adults. There’s a huge payoff for the ability to consciously override our desires, and our other emotions.

Never one to delay the intellectual gratification of a sweeping generalization, I propose that this battle between “getting it now” and waiting for a better payoff in the future defines the human condition. We can see it as the cause of the credit binge that produced both intoxicated consumers and bankers looking for short term gains at the expense of their institutions, leading to our current financial crisis.

And we can see it in our desire to give a piece of our minds to those that have offended our sensibilities. Recently, the NYT ran a story about a dust up between the author Alice Hoffman and a critic. She was apparently so incensed by a review that she sent a tweet calling the critic a “moron.” She then followed up by posting the critic’s phone number and email address online, and suggested that we let her know what we think of “snarky critics.”

There is a long history of writers responding to those critics they found to be less appreciative of genius than they should be. Both Coleridge and Disraeli saw critics as those who had failed in their fields and so turned to criticism. Samuel Johnson had a more practical view, writing that he’d “rather be abused than forgotten.” Abraham Lincoln anticipated the neuroscientific view with his “people who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.”

There is no accounting for taste, but we need to be accountable for holding our emotions in check. While some may see this as a moral issue, it’s also just practical. If Alice Hoffman had just let the criticism roll off her back, she would’ve been better off. The review would’ve soon been forgotten and her impressive corpus of work would continue to speak for itself. ┬áNow, however, many of us will view her writing through the lens of this story about her intemperate behavior.

But Hoffman’s story is our story. We all say and do things that make sense in the short term, but cost us in the longer term. There is an ongoing tension between the orbital frontal cortex and the seat of our emotions in the amygdala, and we all wrestle with it, whether we try to control our desire for the wonders of the corner store or the attractions of Argentina.

Beyond the battle to control our emotions and our tendency to see only what we’re looking for, there is another lesson here. Technology amplifies our effect beyond our ability to control it. We need to think twice before tweeting or hitting the send button.

Perhaps Hoffman’s story will help us value holding our emotions in check, and so make us better at it. But at the same time, we need to be a little more forgiving of those that are overwhelmed by their emotions, for our feelings are what make us human.

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