Slow Down You Move Too Fast: Students And Temporal Discounting

I once paid a sum to avoid shipping fees with a popular Internet company. It seemed a smart move, at first, since I bought books regularly, but a few calculations would have revealed how many books I’d have to buy to make the membership pay for itself (approximately 24) and the cost of the books (too much). No, Miss S, I didn’t do my homework. I also failed to consider that the benefit applied only to new books sold by the company and not used books sold by third party sellers. And finally, I didn’t scrutinize the single click option that made my purchases even easier. I can walk through a casino and exit with all my cash, but a mouse click on a sure thing doesn’t offer time for reflection. One year of book purchases did.

Wisdom, I’ve decided, is recognizing ones weaknesses and learning how minimize their effects. In this instance, I dropped the service, and I began to use my shopping cart as mom. Mom was the one who was always reminding me that I didn’t need a Nehru jacket, that I only wanted one. I never buy anything any more without leaving it in my cart for a while. Most often I never make the purchase. I use the library too, not so much to finish every book that attracts my attention but to see if when it’s in my hands it still interests me. These easy steps (behavior modification) put time between impulses and actions and save money.

Similarly, I am less tempted by an unopened than opened package of junk food, and even less so by one I haven’t purchased. I don’t buy snacks at all, but my darling daughter brings them home with her laundry when she visits. I’m not going to tell her to stay away, so her visits become a test of my willpower. Impulsiveness can play a role in communication as well. Probably most of us have fired off an email or text and instantly regretted it. Gmail now has an “undo send” feature. The video example shows a user correcting a misspelling, but my guess is foot-in-mouth is bigger motivator. Still, the maximum of 30 seconds to rethink an email is short. (Extra time is behind the advice to think before you speak or to count to ten before speaking when angry.) Better to do what Mom suggested. When angry, write a letter, and then throw it away.

Impulsivity is not limited to children (it’s a problem of aging too), but helping students learn to recognize its consequences and providing them with strategies for controlling impulsive behavior might prove more useful than talking to them in general terms about deferring gratification. As a rule, we tend to favor small rewards now over big rewards tomorrow. This tendency, called temporal discounting, drives overeating, over exercising, overspending, abusing drugs, ADHD, and more. (For an overview of the subject and research see Temporal Discounting: Basic Research And The Analysis Of Socially Important Behavior.) The urge to do it now appears to be hardwired and probably served us well when life was more uncertain, but as research indicates and our own experience should remind us, we can learn to resist temptation.

David H. Freedman examined recent studies of temporal discounting in an article in Scientific American Mind, (March/April 2013) “Time-Warping Temptations.” Freedman wrote: “If we can make the sooner, smaller reward seem less compelling or get the larger, later reward to attract more attention, researchers have discovered, activity shifts from the limbic system to the prefrontal cortex—and we make wiser choices.” In other words, when executive functions override emotional impulses, we think rather than react.

How we perceive time plays a role in temporal discounting. When we consider sooner and later rewards, our estimates of time are skewed. Tomorrow seems further off, and as a result, the later reward less attractive or consequence less problematic. Today’s bowl of ice cream appeals more than tomorrow’s weight gain appalls. And, as we’ve all experienced, the gap seems to increase the closer we get to an earlier reward. I remind my son of his long-range desires whenever he has ready cash and wants to go to the mall. I know how he feels. I’ve been there. So I stall him. I become his shopping cart, and often his burning desire evaporates. According to Freedman, research has found that delaying immediate rewards can counteract the time-skewing effect. A delay as short as five minutes can be effective, maybe washing dishes or vacuuming before scooping out the ice cream. And imagining a future reward can also help, perhaps visualizing that new Xbox.

Another way to think of temporal discounting is to compare pictorial art before and after the use of perspective. Perspective provides an illusion of depth, distance. Before perspective, subjects on a surface appeared in the same plane. Temporal discounting makes the future recede. Maybe if we visualized desires in a less sophisticated manner, as medieval painters portrayed the world, we could more accurately judge their plusses and minuses. Students easily sidetracked by immediate rewards might create graphic organizers of distractions and goals. Perhaps with the possibilities on a flat surface, immediacy would cease its siren song and students would make better choices. One thing to keep in mind is that generic statements about consequences don’t work. Michael Cameron, a psychologist involved with antiobesity programs, advises that specific goals and consequences do. “I found that if you give people specific information about those consequences and get them to say it out loud, they go into the decision with their eyes wide open and start wondering if they really want to go through all that.” Success is in details particular to each student. Students have to own their plan, their own IEP.

One last point. Researchers have found that subjects who listen to slow rhythms are more apt to wait for later rewards than those who listen to faster paced rhythms, so if you play music in the classroom, a 2nd movement of a string quartet is a better choice than a 4th.

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