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Mindful : December 2016
things like the decimal effect or the magnitude effect, unfairly labeled as flawed and possi- bly destined for failure people who weren’t. Even more serious, the field likely got a key detail wrong: what is cause, what is effect, and whether the tyranny of now explains all the ills commonly blamed on it. Let me give a couple of examples: • In one classic study from 1998, research- ers compared the time horizons of 34 heroin addicts and 59 healthy volunteers. The latter looked ahead 4.7 years, while the addicts imag- ined their futures only nine days away, found psychologist Warren Bickel of Virginia Tech, who argued that this “foreshortened future” explained the addicts’ decisions: if you care only about the next nine days, then of course you’ll fail to consider the long-term consequences of addiction. • People with less education and lower income likewise tend to devalue future rewards (compared to people higher on the socioeco- nomic ladder). That led to the belief that their immediacy bias is the cause of their failure to “succeed”; clearly, they played and indulged and wasted time and spent money like sailors on shore leave rather than studying, hustling for jobs, and saving for the future. What’s wrong with these pictures? In reverse order, it doesn’t take much imagination to suspect that the limited time horizon of people in poverty is not the cause but the effect of their poverty (is it even possible to open a savings account or pay for college when my family could be on the streets tomorrow despite my working two jobs to make rent?), and that the addicts were behaving perfectly rationally for people who had no future. The more uncer- tain a promised outcome of a behavior is, said Bickel, the less the motivation to carry out that behavior. In a world characterized by risk and uncertainty, he said, “ the adaptive strategy may be to consider only the immediate consequences of a behavior.” The science of intertemporal choice has been too hasty to condemn people who don’t follow the nice middle-class rules about postponing rewards today for better ones tomorrow. When you feel like forces beyond your control deter- mine your fate, it makes little sense to sacrifice for tomorrow if that sacrifice might not yield the promised reward. On the other hand, if you live with a great deal of socioeconomic privilege and simply have a hankering for a marshmal- low right now, that does not (necessarily) mean you’re doomed for life. ● AD 24 mindful December 2016 brain science