Sunday, December 29, 2019

Temporal Myopia

Temporal myopia is like visual myopia, except it causes clarity to decrease in time rather than in space. When you suffer from visual myopia and a wolf approaches, you might think that the blur you see is your best friend in a fur coat.

With temporal myopia, if your doctor told you that you will die tomorrow, you would probably faint on the spot, but if he told you that you will die fifty years from now, you might think nothing of it.

Temporal myopia, rather than making us more cautious, makes us reduce the importance of a future event. It’s called ‘hyperbolic discounting’. Even though I know that abstaining from eating chocolate cake will extend my life in the future, I choose to discount the importance of that fact. The short-term gain of tasting the chocolate melt on my tongue is far more important.

'Temporal myopia is the archenemy of delayed gratification'. (Click to Tweet)

When I wake up in the morning, half dead, I cannot wait for my first cup of coffee. If the gratification of caffeine rushing through my veins gets delayed, there is a good chance that I will become dangerous to the people around me. I am temporarily myopic to the knowledge that I’ll feel like a wet rag a few hours later, a typical side-effect of caffeine.

But sometimes delayed gratification wins the battle over temporal myopia. I met this man in the therapy pool yesterday, who started to yell at me because I had positioned myself in his ‘lane’ (how you can swim laps in an exercise pool not much larger than a good sized bathtub is beyond me). He was so loud and verbally abusive that I started to laugh. This didn’t sit well with him. He called me arrogant and told me he would swim right over me if I didn’t move. I wanted to give him a kick in the you know what, but knowing enough about physics to realize that water does not help you in your kicking efforts, I preferred to bide my time. I devised a plan to get back at him with all the might of my delayed gratification technique. I called the manager and revel in the knowledge that this man will pay for his crime by being officially reprimanded. In this case I preferred to wait for my vengeance and make it taste that much sweeter.

There are other areas of my life, though, where temporal myopia has served me well. Our guest room has been unusable for the past five years because it needs so much work that it looks like a bomb exploded in it. My husband and I talk a lot about our guestroom project. Every month or so we go over the details of the color and the style of the floor we are installing, the type of curtains, etc.  We have been proud of our non-existent, new guest room for the past five years. We have gotten addicted to the temporal myopia rush every time we discuss it, so why mess with a good thing and forget about the delayed gratification completely? This way it doesn’t cost us a penny.

I believe that some climates and cultures are more conducive to temporal myopia than others. If you live in a gorgeous, warm place with palm trees, where delicious fruits and vegetables grow abundantly and where beautiful, half naked girls stroll down the pristine beaches, delayed gratification doesn't make sense. Why would you want to delay the gratification of eating, drinking and having sex all day?

Compare that to where I live in New England. As I write this I am looking out on my backyard where the squirrels are scrambling to get a grip on the piles of snow that reach half way up my window. They have buried just about everything they can find: nuts, dead leaves, bird seeds and other squirrels’ nuts. It is so cold that I don’t go outside unless it is an emergency. I am delaying gratification on almost everything right now. I cannot go for walks, so I write. I cannot relax in the sun, so I clean the house. I cannot meet my friends for coffee, so I do my bookkeeping instead. Does delaying pleasure make you work harder? Is there a hidden advantage to spending my life in this frozen inferno?

In an interesting study called The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment (1972), four year old children were offered a marshmallow and told that if they waited fifteen minutes without eating it, they would get another one. Eighty percent of the children ate their marshmallow, but the twenty percent that waited turned out to be more successful in adult life. Ah, but were they happier? Did they ever regret having missed the opportunity to feel that wonderful sense of instant gratification?

Studies are all fine and dandy but there is a risk attached to delaying gratification for too long. If you are not careful you might get hit by a bus while you wait for that bigger reward down the road. Someone else will be eating your marshmallows and you will be cursing yourself for not having followed your temporal myopia instinct.

Happy New Year!

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