Delayed gratification revisited

I’ve previously alluded to the link between delayed gratification (putting off rewards) and economic success. The Chinese and Germans save rather than spend. Max Weber linked the rise of Capitalism with the Protestant Ethic (the reward is not even in this life but the next).

I’m currently reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman – a Nobel Laureate whose insights into the heuristics and biases of (most) human thinking formed the basis for behavioural economics.

In the book, Kahneman talks about the two systems of thinking taking place in our brains – System 1, which is our intuitive, effortless system; and System 2 which is effortful and which is what we use when we have to ‘think hard’ about something like calculating 24×137.

System 2 is the system that attempts to control the constant flow of thoughts and impressions emerging from System 1. Self-control is the degree to which System 2 can override System 1.

But System 2 thinking comes at a cost. It consumes a lot of energy in the form of glucose and there is evidence that it affects our motivation. If we employ self-control for completing one task, we may be less likely to make an effort in another.

And if we are simultaneously challenged by a demanding cognitive task and by a temptation (that chocolate cake’s not going to eat itself!) then we are more likely to yield to temptation. Self-control and resisting temptation – delayed gratification.

This makes me think several things. Firstly, System 2 needs to be trained and developed in all of us, but we also need to understand System 1 and acknowledge its strengths and weaknesses. In my coaching practice, it is apparent that the issues presented by subjects are mainly finding ways to control the unhelpful but overpowering thinking of System 1.

The higher up an organisation you go, the greater the requirement for System 2 thinking. But System 1 won’t always allow itself to be controlled.

One of my coachee’s goes into System 2 thinking for everything – even his attempt to lose weight. He writes out a plan and keeps a log. He manages quite well during the week when his System 2 thinking is dominant, but his plans go to pot at the weekends when System 1 reasserts itself. One of my suggestions for him has been to avoid writing things down as System 2 thinks the work is done and System 1 wants to play. See the motivation issue described above.

In my PR practice, it is apparent that organisations communicate in System 2 and their messages are often processed by the audience’s System 1. The gap is where PR disasters occur.





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