Toddlers and bankers, you and me

Posted on: 18 October 2008

This week’s commentary of always entertaining sociology professor Roos Vonk in Intermediair informs us how the current crises – economic, food, energy, climate and environmental – originate in the fact that we all behave like the “bad” four year olds in Walter Mischel’s Marshmallow experiment. The ones who eat the marshmallow instead of saving it and winning a second one by doing so. We act on short term goals, instead of acting our age and making choices that serve long term goals. We grab whatever promises us quick sex, love, money, power and not to forget sweet and fat food (chocolate!) and forego choices that help preserver our environment and health. (Obviously, the marketing industry knows how to tap into these sentiments expertly). Our long term goals keep moving to a distant and uncertain future, like a carrot on a very long and hazy stick. We should conquer that bad inner pre-schooler and grow up! Be good and we’ll reach true civilisation, she preaches.

As an aside, she mentions that long term effects of our behavior usually don’t effect us personally, and we find them too complex and uncomfortable to consider.

But why assume our inner toddler is bad, or even a little backward? Maybe he is just inexperienced, having been a baby recently, probably has good intentions, but needs to learn? And eager to meet us halfway? As a parent to a toddler, I mentioned my relief at finding this article on a “positive no” before. It fits with my own conviction that “no” is really a very ineffective operator for our brains. Not “doing something” still focusses your attention on “doing something” – but then, you’re not supposed to go ahead and do it. This might just be the reason reaction times to tasks including negatives are longer than reaction times to positive tasks (reference needed). The “no” is an extra task, and the “doing something” is still activated (a concrete example would clarify this better).  Offering different behavioral options is a much more effective way to focus attention away from the undesired action.

For grown-ups, the “positive no” is advocated by negotiation expert William Ury, director of the Global Negotiation Project at Harvard Law School (find a description of his YES-NO-YES sandwich here). This links into the complexity and uncertainty sidebar of our desirable mature behavior; I think an interesting approach could be, that we do not really know how our longterm goals could translate into current behavior options. How about looking into that, and indulging our inner toddler? Why couldn’t we have our cake and eat it, too? Could we be seduced into acting well?

I think there is ample room for negotiation here, and that this approach is more promising than the black- and-white toddler/adult dichotomy professor Vonk sketches. Unless we are not allowed to enjoy our lives to the max? Is there a Christian theme skulking in the background, hooded, unseen – like Harry Potter’s Dementors? Because I think we should – life’s too short. And we can, too; it’s just a matter of finding, how.


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