Deferred gratification or meaningless promises?
I vaguely remember a programme on the telly some years back examining the understanding in young children of the now and of the future. And they tested it using techniques of deferred gratification: you can have one sweet now, or a whole bag of sweets in one hour – which do you want? In children under the age of five, invariably they took the single sweet now, because they couldn’t conceive how much better their situation would be if they waited for a bit. And the conclusion is that age is an important factor in our ability to resist the temptation of an immediate reward in preference to a larger or more enduring reward later.
As children get older, you can begin to use deferred gratification to your own advantage, because invariably they forget what they wanted at the outset so you never have to worry about the later, larger reward. But there comes a point in their development when they both understand the concept and have the mental capacity to remember the promises, and at that point you have put in a little more effort and take them seriously. That’s when the hard work starts.
I was reading the other day that the government is in serious danger of missing its target to increase UK investment in R&D to 2.4% of GDP by 2027 – by a whopping £19bn. This was a target announced in 2016, and the government promised an extra £2.3bn in R&D funding for 2021/22. There are all sorts of things wrong with this picture: first off, talk to many of the most innovative companies, and you’ll find that much of their success is built on the vast sums of money that they plough back into R&D – percentages of turnover that dwarf the government’s 2.4% target. Second, why announce a big increase in funding that isn’t going to happen for another three years? Deferred gratification, of course. You can have a small sum of money now, or a much larger sum in a few years’ time – which would you rather have? And then there is the 2027 target itself – so far off into the distance that by the time we get there we’ll have forgotten all about what it was we were working towards.
I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever read a report saying that a government was right on target to meet some future commitment, or having reached that point in the future, a government being congratulated on achieving the aim it had laid out so many years ago. Or, perhaps even worse, if a commitment to make a particular some of money available a few years hence is miraculously met, it transpires that economic conditions have moved on so far that the sum of money promised is no longer adequate to effect any meaningful change.
And yet we respond in the same way every time. We look at the promises and the commitments laid out for future deadlines, and we say ‘thank you very much, sounds good, I’ll defer my gratification to that later date’. And we fail to realise that governments are treating us like small children – not so small that we’d rather take the immediate gratification, but old enough that we’ll accept the deferred gratification without ever really demanding a day of reckoning. Instead, in our very British way, we vent our anger with a loud ‘tut’, and then settle back to wait for the next meaningless promise.
Mark Simms Editor