Wednesday, March 4, 2009

One cookie now or two cookies later

Yesterday I was talking with my friend about some difficult issues he was having related to raising his son, and in particular with respect to a complex decision where there are clear pros and cons on either side of the equation. On a certain level, of course, it's laughable to ask me about raising a child, since I've none of my own. But philosophy is philosophy; some wisdom is always worthy.

When we were talking, I was thinking of him and his son just as people like those I often help--which is to say graduate students. He's a smart guy, but his son is eight, so you can't quite talk through ideas the same way with an eight year old. "But there has to be a simplified parallel that he would understand," I finally claimed.

And there is; it's a classic one. I think that Daniel Goleman's book Emotional Intelligence says something to the effect that those who, as children, choose two cookies later over one now, tend to be more successful as adults--successful in most measurable dimensions, in terms of career, social life, etc. I don't know if Goleman's assertion is true, but it is clear to me that the one cookie now vs. two later is a model for many of the things we face in life.

My friend was concerned with some issues of social responsibility, but also with his son's social community, too. He felt a conflict between large-scale social responsibility, and a desire to care for his son and to give him opportunities. Two different value systems were coming into conflict.

As I was out running today, I was thinking that the one cookie now vs. two cookies later paradigm is a good one for talking about the complexity of issues, and for showing how we can be faced with questions whose answer is not clear, or which inevitably involve some sort of compromise.

Suppose you're offered one cookie now vs. two later. One good first question might be "how much later?" If you only have to wait one minute for the two cookies, it seems like a no-brainer. Similarly, if you are going to wait a decade to get the two cookies, it seems pointless not to take the one right now. Somewhere in between these two extremes, we might logically presume that there is a point where it is hard to decide.

In exploring the complexity of the question, we can also note that the reward offered for waiting (the two cookies) can be altered--maybe it's three cookies later, or ice cream and a cookie later instead of just a cookie now.

These are terms, I think, that an eight year old could understand. On the other hand, getting an eight year old to see the point, and to accept it may be unlikely. After all, this is difficult for adults to manage.
Some decisions are like the one cookie now vs. two cookies in one minute decision: it's easily made. Most are not.

When we're writing, or when we're managing a project, or when we're trying to decide whether to support an institution (like my alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley), we're faced with questions that are much more closely balanced. Yes, the University builds weapons of mass destruction; it also harbors and supports some very good progressive thought. Yes, the university sports programs are problematic in many ways; they also do some good, and buying tickets to one game won't really make a difference. Yes, you want your son to be able to have communal activities with friends, including ones that you enjoyed as a youth; you also want your son to be able to make socially responsible decisions that promote peace, justice, etc.
Or, to take this out of the realm of my friend and into the realm of the writer: we might offer this similar paradigm:
shitty draft now vs. good draft later. How long do you wait for the good draft? A shitty draft now may be far superior--if, for example, you have been told you must submit something immediately or be dropped from your program. Sure, at such a moment it would be nice to have a good draft, but often we feel that the draft we currently have is a shitty one.
The answer is never clear. Laurence Sterne, author of Tristram Shandy, once wrote that a bad letter in good time was better than a good letter late (though he said it more elegantly than my awkward paraphrase, I have lost the original quote and the reference to my source--I think it was from a collection of his letters). But if you submit a bad draft to a publisher, you may be rejected out of hand, hurting your future chances, while waiting longer would have meant a better reception.

Sadly there is no clear answer to many of the problems that we struggle with (which may help explain why we struggle with them). I believe that the more clearly we can see what is involved in choosing the different alternatives, the better we can make a choice that will serve us well.

Well, the logic sounds ok, but I wouldn't want to try to convince anyone of the wisdom herein--least of all an eight year old.

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