If you give a child a marshmallow and tell them that they can eat it or wait five minutes to get two marshmallows, prepare yourself for some humor. It’s as if time and space screech to a halt and the only thing that matters to that child is the marshmallow in front of them. They stare intently at it, then try to distract themselves by humming or looking around the room, and then their eyes slowly turn back to the marshmallow. You can see the desire in their eyes and then like a bird diving for its prey, they snatch up the marshmallow and shove it in their mouth. This sums up a well-known psychological experiment, the results of which really don’t surprise anyone: children have a hard time with impulse control.
It all starts in the brain. A person’s pre-frontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until the age of 25. This the part of your brain responsible for rational decision making, which seems to explain a lot of teenage stupidity. Shouting, “Use your brain!” after they’ve started a fire in their bedroom doesn’t really help because, essentially, they are. At least they are using what they have so far, which isn’t all of it.
While irrational decision making is usually a present-moment problem, the long-term ramifications are at the crux of something we humans have a really difficult time doing: delaying gratification . The ability to ask yourself, “Will this help me or hurt me down the road?” is the ability to see the future. Grown-ups are better at it because they’ve got the neurological hardware, but even so, the marshmallow in front of them looks mighty tasty right now.
Screen Door on a Submarine
So yes, it’s true that most people older than 25 have a fully formed pre-frontal cortex, but that mass of noodley brain matter is as useful as a screen door on a submarine if you don’t choose to listen to what it’s telling you. If you spent 25 years learning how to value your present self, while neglecting your future self, it will take time to unlearn it. The ability to delay our gratification is stinkin’ hard!
That’s why credit card debt is so massive and growing, while savings and retirement accounts are shrinking. We get used to swiping a card from the age of 18 to 25 and while we now know it will harm our future selves, we haven’t practiced the clairvoyant powers our minds afford.
The good news, however, is this: you have what it takes. You have what it takes to say, “No,” to that thing you can’t quite afford. You have what it takes to invest in your future gratification rather than quickly and detrimentally indulging yourself now. You are a grown-up and you can see the future. Converse with your future self and ask them how glad they are that you put money into your retirement account. Ask your future self how grateful they are to not be paying off what felt so right back then. Ask your future self if it was worth waiting for. And in a moment of childlike glee, your future self will look back at you with sticky fingers and a mouthful of marshmallow and say, “And I still have one more!”
Want to read more from Aaron? Check out his other posts here.