A Bird in the Hand

Is it worth two in the bush?

Maybe not

BY Frater Bovious


I choose "Now!"

I choose “Now!”

CARROLLTON, Texas — If you offered your dog a biscuit and said “You can have this biscuit right now, or you can wait 15 minutes and I will give you two biscuits,” assuming no prior training, what would your dog do? Having tried this experiment with my dog, Coco, I have learned that he believes a biscuit in the mouth is worth two in the bush, every time.

The iconic version of this experiment with humans is the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment of 1972, you can look it up, it’s interesting. Basically, kids ages 4 to 6 were presented with a marshmallow and told that they could eat it now or wait 15 minutes and have two. Only 1/3 of the kids managed to get two.

In general the experiment is thought to indicate the amount of self-control a kid has, as demonstrated by the ability to delay gratification. As an added bonus, follow-up studies seem to indicate that those that could delay gratification were more successful in life as demonstrated by career, spouse selection, lower incidences of addiction, etc.

Follow up and additional experiments have raised questions regarding whether or not self-control was the factor in play. Instead of self-control some have argued that the ability to reason and predict outcomes impacts whether or not the kid opts for the immediate marshmallow. And further experiments showed that kids who had been lied to or otherwise disappointed by a failure to keep a promise tended to immediately eat the marshmallow.

As if all the above are not inter-related.

First relevant point is that age is a factor. It is a biological fact that our brains develop over time and become more and more capable of rational thought. Just like I can’t simply say to Coco, “Do you want this now or would you rather have two in 15 minutes” and have him understand the question, the Stanford Marshmallow experiment was not done with one and two-year old children. Please note it was also not done with 30-year-old adults either. It seems self-evident that the ability to reason plays a role in self-control.

Also note they did not put a line of coke in front of an addict in withdrawal and say, “You can snort this now, or you can wait 15 minutes and snort two lines of coke.” It also seems self-evident that severely altering brain chemistry with addictive drugs impacts one’s ability to reason and that also plays a role in self-control.

The ability to delay gratification then is not an innate trait present in some and not in others. It is an ability that some learn and some do not, or that some have short-circuited.

So, what about this bit of folk wisdom that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush? It’s rather situational and conditional. The Marshmallow experiment would seem to indicate that a bird in the hand is not worth two in the bush, if one can be reasonably certain one can get the two in the bush. The key word being reasonable, that is able to be reasoned out.

A dog will choose the bird in the hand every time because they cannot reason to a future potential good. And, in the wild, this is behavior that has immediate benefit. And in uncertain situations where one cannot reasonably predict the outcome of behavior, it is reasonable to get what you can when you can get it because you just don’t know if you will have another chance.

But, we are not dogs. We have abilities, and therefore options, that dogs simply do not have and never will have.

So, let’s talk about concupiscence! Yeah, I’m tying this into Lent again. I talked about concupiscence in an earlier post here. Simply put, as a summary of the above, a Lenten observance of delaying gratification is an opportunity to be fully human, and to realize our potential as children of God.

As a quick aside, I link to an article below that links to an article by a person that writes a lengthy article about her dismay at how 2012 worked out for her. It is a long and interesting read about how her life has kind of fallen apart and which she ties to her refusal to delay gratification but that it’s all good in the end mostly because she gets to write the truth about herself.

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