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GET REAL: Delay gratification

Adrian Green

GET REAL: Delay gratification

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How good were you at waiting when you were a child? It might have made a big difference in your life. There are studies that show that one of the greatest predictors of a child’s success as an adult is her ability to delay gratification. 

Psychologists conducted tests where they placed children alone in a room with some kind of sweet. The child was told that if they did not eat the one-sweet now they would get several later. If they ate the sweet that was right in front of them they wouldn’t get anymore.

The progress of the children in the study was monitored as they grew up. It was observed that the longer a child was able to resist eating the sweet, the better they tended to do later on in life.

The suggestion is that the ability to postpone immediate pleasure in favour of a larger future goal is fundamental to achievement. Google “Delayed Gratification” for more information.

When it comes to a response to crime, our inability as a society to delay gratification may be killing us. 

It seems like every week we are treated to the news that a suspect in a high-profile criminal case is apprehended. We breathe a collective sigh of relief and go back to sleep, secure that the Police Force is doing its job.

We are at peace until the next daring daylight armed robbery or brutal murder puts us on alert again. The cycle goes like this: business as usual followed by jarring news of a disturbing crime followed by pictures in the paper of young men in handcuffs followed by business as usual.

Never mind follow up to see if the accused are actually found guilty in a court of law. In the mind of the public a picture in the court pages is as good as a conviction. It is worse if a picture of you in handcuffs appears on the front page. For some that is sufficient grounds for execution. 

It is the job of the courts to decide whether someone is guilty or innocent. The real newsworthy moment should be the handing down of a verdict. But for us that is too long to delay the gratification of feeling like justice is served. The public wants the crime solved now. The editors want newspapers sold now. 

To wait til the end of a trial for a sense of justice is too much for us, especially considering the reputed sluggish pace of the court system. We may have to wait years for the trial to start. And then at the end we could suffer a deflating anticlimax if the accused is found not-guilty. We want justice to at least appear to be swift and glitchless.

It gives a sense of comfort. It makes it seem like crime is being taken care of. We want to herd the bad people into prison as quickly as possible so we can move on with our lives in peace. Never mind that the society can produce criminals faster than the justice system can incarcerate them. 

It’s also a good look for the police. The crime fighters appear to be on top of things. If there is an armed robbery that makes headlines this week, by next week the accused can be seen walking out of the court house with an officer holding each arm. But the apprehension of a suspect is just the beginning. Never mind the number of cases that go unsolved and the cases that don’t make headlines.

The newspapers are not likely to do anything to promote more temperance and patience. Sensationalism sells. Businesses thrive on consumers who are impulsive and cannot delay gratification.

The courts, though, can relax and take their time. There is no public pressure on the criminal courts to speed up or become more efficient. We are done with the case from the time we see that picture of the accused in the papers. Never mind the innocent man who may be arrested wrongfully. Never mind the accused on remand for long periods of time without trial. We’ve got our quick sense of satisfaction. That is until the next high-profile case or crime flare-up.

This is how we often approach life in general. Out of sight out of mind. We tend to seek quick fixes which have to be repeated and intensified over time rather than slow, methodical processes which may offer long-term solutions.

This is how we often approach health. We seek the suppression of symptoms rather than a cure. It is easier to take a pill every day than it is to change my diet and exercise. Never mind the doctor will have to keep upping the strength of the prescription and eventually it will cease to be effective. 

This is how we often approach education. We force, push, scream, shout, threaten, intimidate and shame the child to get them to learn so they can pass a test. Never mind if the information learned for the test is forgotten soon after. Never mind that the negative experience of school may prevent them from ever again picking up a book voluntarily. Never mind the large number of students who this is obviously not working for. The short-term high of seeing the pictures of top 11 plus achievers once a year in the paper is worth the sacrifice of the others in the long-term.

This is how we approach crime. “Hang them! Get tough! Lock them up! Get them off the streets!” We never get to the slow, methodical work of reforming education, focusing on rehabilitation, addressing the justice system. And if politicians are focused too much on short-term fiscal goals and winning the next election, instead of the long-term viability of the society, we never will. 

It’s not entirely their fault. Instant gratification gets votes. 

Adrian Green was one of those children who would have eaten the first sweet. [email protected]