Tuesday, January 7, 2014

"Cold And The Elusive Subjectivity Of Time"

There’s a famous psychological experiment where a kid is left alone with a marshmallow and the psychologist tells them that if they don’t eat the marshmallow by the time the psychologist gets back, the kid’s self-restraint will be rewarded with a second marshmallow.

The test is meant to gauge the subject’s capacity for deferring gratification, trading their desire for instant gratification – wolfing down one marshmallow immediately, or at least before the psychologist comes back – for a down-the-line doubling of their marshmallow-eating satisfaction.    

Deferred gratification is adjudged to be an admirable attribute.  The “Achievers” in life, it is believed, make it, to no small degree, because of their ability to postpone immediate gratification for a greater payoff at a subsequent juncture. 

You stay in school, for example, making no money, so that you can make more money as a result of the degree you receive when you graduate.  By contrast, dropping out of school and getting a job ca-chings immediately, but you are unlikely to get a substantially ca-chingier job for the remainder of your life. 

(Unless you drop out and invent something extremely valuable in your garage.  But that is the rare exception.  If it weren’t, there’d be nobody in High School and everybody in their garage.)

Over all, deferred gratification is the more reliable strategy, leaving its practitioners strutting around going,

“I’m going to make it.  You know how I know that?  Because I was thinking “I’m going to make it” ages ago, but I didn’t mention it until just now. 

Bam! – Gimme the marshmallows!”

The thing is, not long ago, the “Marshmallow Experiment” was returned to the laboratory for further seasoning.  And it turns out, it appears, that sometimes when you defer gratification, you’re an idiot.

The example given in a recent article on the subject goes like this:

“What do you do if, when you get to a subway platform, you see it is already packed with people?  Do you join the throngs to wait for the train, or do you shake your head and seek an alternate way of getting where you’re going?

The question involved here is:  Does the packed platform indicate that the subway’s arrival is imminent?  (Meaning you defer your gratification and you wait.)  Or does it suggest “Trouble in Subwayland”, meaning that the wait could be indeterminately extended?  (In which case deferring gratification is counterproductive, and the smart move is to take off.) 

I have to say that I am personally familiar with this dilemma.

From waiting at a Bus Stop in Toronto.

In the middle of December.

I am thinking of a particular Bus Stop.  On the southeast corner of Bathurst Street and Eglington Avenue.  At this moment, feeling retroactive shivers, I can see myself waiting for the Bathurst Bus in the pitch dark, which, in Toronto in December, can be any time after two-thirty in the afternoon.

The corner is a virtual wind tunnel.  With absolutely no place to hide.  You just have to stand there and take it, a powerless victim of the Canadian Chill.

The feeling in your extremities is long gone.  Your ears have turned bright red and brittle, the most casual manipulation causing them to crack off like an icicle.  And – forgive me, but I am going for “comprehensive” – there is this crusty residue adorning the insides of your nostrils, the tampering with which leads to instant nosebleeds.

You have been stranded at that Bus Stop for half an hour, stamping your feet to induce circulation in those unresponsive lumps inside your snow boots, believing the extended wait indicates that the bus will be arriving at any minute. 

I mean, there is a schedule and it’s time.  Actually, long past time.  Offering further evidence of the bus’s imminent arrival. 


There is also a “Stubbornness Factor” involved.  You have waited this long.  What’s “just a little bit longer”?  I mean, your reward is definitely on its way, chugging up Bathurst, invisible at this point, but imaginably somewhere between the Conservative Beth Tzedec Synagogue and the Holy Blossom Temple. 

That’s only a couple of blocks south of the Bus Stop!

I mean, can you really consider giving up now, opting to cut your losses and walk to your destination, only to find yourself between stops as the bus you endured Siberian weather conditions waiting for goes rumbling past? 

And that’s the crazy part.  I could walk to my destination.  The corner of St. Clements and Bathurst – it was only a ten to twelve minute trudge up the street.  It was not that lengthy of a hike, taking, in fact, half the time I had already spent waiting at that Bus Stop!  

And the walking process would warm me up!  My body in motion – it was the answer to my agony!

But somehow I just couldn’t pull the trigger.  I was – virtually literally but psychologically for certain – frozen to the spot.

That, folks, is an example of deferring gratification too long.  Of course, I did not know that at the time, teeth-chatteringly immobilized at that Godforsaken intersection, thinking of the comfort and convenience – it was maybe a three-minute ride to my destination – I would feel sitting warmed and protected inside that bus.

If it ever showed up.  

1 comment:

Wendy M. Grossman said...

This makes me think of the wonderful Glasgow folk musician Adam McNaughtan, and his plaintive song:

Why are there three 46s
For every 23?

Curiously, yesterday I was stuck at Philadelphia's Suburban Station when there was some kind of electrical failure. I opted to walk to Market Street East rather than wait, just in case it went on a long time, figuring that MSE was a better place to be stuck. When I got there, the train I'd left behind at SS was waiting, delayed but unbowed. At that point I got on it and was delivered to my destination 25 minutes later.

I'm from New York. I don't do waiting well. I'm also an optimist: if I try to help myself perhaps good things will come to me. And a pessimist: if I stay put, I will get frustrated and angry and I might yell at the wrong person and wind up in jail.

Take your pick.