In a classic psychological study, hungry four-year-olds were offered a marshmallow. They were told that if they could wait about 20 minutes before eating, they could have two marshmallows instead of one.
Only about one-third of the children successfully delayed gratification and got two marshmallows. This ability to delay gratification as children predicted success in life decades later. They were more likely to study, do well in school and in careers. In addition, they had more successful social relationships. The ability to sacrifice today for gains tomorrow can pay big dividends.
About one-third of the children attempted to delay gratification but were unsuccessful. These kids did things like look at the marshmallow while considering how good marshmallows taste. Focusing on the marshmallow made the marshmallow more appealing and harder to resist. They had good intentions, but the children did not have the skills and discipline required.
The remainder of the children did not try to delay gratification, and they ate the one marshmallow right away. The data showed that these children were not as successful in life as those who were able to wait. Enjoying life now without a care about tomorrow is a recipe for a disappointing future.
It seems there might be a lesson here for America.
A disappointing future is rapidly approaching for our nation. The U.S. Government, and many state governments, have made long-term promises without setting aside the resources to meet those promises. Detroit is the tip of a very large iceberg. It seems, in examples from all over the country, that we have elected too many politicians who would have chosen to immediately eat the single marshmallow.
For example, Pennsylvania, where I live, currently has unfunded liabilities for state employee retirement benefits of approximately $47 billion, according to the Commonwealth Foundation. That means politicians have promised to pay $47 billion worth of benefits for which they have not set aside money. Our politicians have made promises without planning how to pay for them. We have been given the sugar rush today, but the bill will eventually come due.
When talking about government spending, the word “billion” is thrown around casually and we are increasingly hearing “trillion” said with no sense of shock. Just how much money is $47 billion? The Pennsylvania General Fund budget is about $28.4 billion.
In addition to Pennsylvania’s unfunded retirement liabilities, the state and local governments have taken on more than $120 billion of debt — about four times the annual budget. We have about $10,000 of debt for every Pennsylvanian.
But here’s the really frightening thing: Pennsylvania is in far better shape than many states, such as California and Illinois — not to mention America as a whole.
The debt and unfunded liabilities at the federal level are simply astronomical. The debt is more than $16 trillion, or $50,000 for every citizen. This does not count unfunded liabilities for Social Security and Medicare. We are on the precipice of becoming the next Greece, except that no one will be there to bail us out.
Politicians are not the source of the problem. The problem lies in the voters who elect them. It seems more and more voters not only want to eat their own marshmallow right away, but they want to eat the marshmallows of others without regard of how to, or who will, pay for our collective inability to delay gratification.
The good news is that self-control can be developed. Just as exercising can strengthen muscles, engaging in self-control improves the ability to delay gratification in the future. We can help our elected leaders improve their self-control. When our leaders show spending restraint, however small, we can thank them. If politicians begin to believe they will be rewarded for not spending, they will spend less.
The financial apocalypse has not yet arrived. With as much winsomeness as possible, we need to encourage our leaders to develop some self-control.
— Dr. Joseph J. Horton is professor of psychology at Grove City College and a researcher on Positive Youth Development with The Center for Vision & Values (www.visionandvalues.org).