Ask anyone who knows me, and chances are they’ll say I’m an optimist. They might even say I’m an incurable optimist. But lately I’ve been feeling rather pessimistic and it’s all because of marshmallows. See, I’m reading a book about how the brain makes decisions – How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer – and when I think about the tough decisions we’re facing as a society, and then think about how we’re hardwired, well, it doesn’t look good.
Here’s how the marshmallows fit in: an experiment tested people’s ability to resist immediate gratification for a larger reward if they waited. So if you waited ten minutes, you could get TWO marshmallows instead of one. Almost all the test subjects couldn’t resist, and bam, ate the marshmallow. Turns out the human brain is more prone to choose pleasurable sensations RIGHT NOW rather than the promise of more pleasure if you exercise a little bit of patience. There is very little self-control that’s hard-wired into our brains.
So here’s the dilemma: right now, our society celebrates “If it feels good, do it” whether it’s buying things we don’t really need or turning down the thermostat to keep our homes cooler in the summer. We don’t think about the consequences of depleting natural resources or pumping greenhouse gases into the air. It feels good, man, so everything else isn’t as important. It feels good, our brains tell us, and we keep feeding the sensation.
When it comes to global warming, there are critical decisions we need to make today, sacrifices we need to make today, that will bring long-term benefits. But can we do it? Our research shows that consumers already feel they’re having to choose between their comfort, convenience and the environment. And guess which one comes in last – yep, the environment. Comfort and convenience feel good, man.
Evolution is slow. So is it even possible that the human brain can evolve quickly enough to help us learn to control our impulses? My friend Joel Makower says we have 5000 days to figure this global warming predicament out and change our ways. Is that enough time for radical evolution? When in the course of human history has the human brain changed that quickly?
I was laying out my pessimism with one of my colleagues who suggested that legislation might be the way out. After all, we have a new administration that prioritizes the environment and we’ve had some past successes like saving endangered species. But here’s my (pessimistic) thought: like our brains, politics needs to evolve as well. Can our politicians propose, negotiate, approve and implement legislation in the next 5000 days that will be robust enough to make a difference? Will special interest groups hijack the discussion with a “It feels fine now” argument? Will we be able to resist the urge for immediate gratification and take the long view that involves exercising patience?
Somebody get me out of this dark spiral…wait, maybe if I eat a marshmallow, I’ll feel better.