willpower – part II

Are you ready with your finish lines?

For those who missed part I and what the exercise was about, you can read here.
These were the two sentences you had to continue (just with a line or so more):

“Joe is having a cup of coffee in a restaurant. He’s thinking of the time to come when…”

“After awakening, Bill began to think about his future. In general he expected to…”

Now, consider what length of time does your continuation of the story have?
As the authors explain, a group psychiatrists used this exercise “among heroin addicts at a treatment centre in Burlington, Vermont” (page 68).
For their experiment, the psychiatrists used two groups of respondents: one group comprised addicts, and another one – regular people, non-addicts.
The findings from their experiment showed that regular people, non-addicts, were likely to continue the two sentences by adding actions that take place in a much longer time span.
Whereas, addicts usually gave a very short time span for Joe’s and Bill’s continued actions.

For example, to the non-addict respondent, the “time to come” stretched for about a week.
To the addict, however, it stretched to only an hour.

The non-addict extended Bill’s “future” over to aspirational things like “earning a promotion at work or getting married”, while to the addicts it was more like “doctor’s appointment or a visit with relatives” (page 69).

My experiment
I conducted this experiment with a few students from an independent school.
I agree, they were only 9 students, aged between 14 and 15.
But the results were striking.
Most of them offered a very short time span of activities for Joe and Bill.

  1. This made me think of all the media and youth related books I’ve read that discuss the ‘living on the fast lane’ type of life today’s young attitude is, and whether that’s the cause of my subjects to respond with actions that stretched in such a short time span.
  2. This also made me think whether it’s worth doing the experiment with a larger number of subjects and see if young people today really have the mentality of an addict – a short-sightedness when it comes to their own future actions (even though they were talking about Joe and Bill in this case).

The students didn’t look drug addicts to me.
In fact, being in an independent (private) school suggested that they’re likely to come from an upper-middle class family with educated parents and all the extras in their lives.

Again, my findings don’t lead to anything.
In fact, this mini experiment could be totally wrong – I may have happened to speak to kids who were exhausted at the end of their school day.
Who knows.

But  I can’t ignore what Jean Twenge wrote in Generation Me and the Narcissism Epidemic – that young people don’t save money, lead extreme diet styles, and live each day with no consideration whatsoever about that impact on their lives in 30 years time. Thirty years? “Who cares”, a teenager would lament, “are you kidding me – that’s so far away. We’ll worry when we get there”.
And finally, all this leads me to ask the question: Is that the sort of a healthy mind, a drug addict mind, or a young and unformed mind that exterior factors shapes it to think this way – short-sightedly?

Scientists excuse young people for being short-sighted and thus often making mistakes with long-term consequences with the way our brain develops.
The amygdala, the part of the brain which is responsible for instinctual reactions such as fear and aggressive behaviour develops early. But the frontal cortex – the area of the brain which controls reasoning and helps us to “think before we act”, develops and matures much later, well into adulthood.
In other words – kids cannot help it.

But I still think that willpower could be a key answer to it all.
I remembered Jane Fonda’s most recent book Prime Time – fantastic, even though I’m not 70.
The book shows (through so much research reference) you how important it is to think of your 70s. How important it is to think long-term.
It may sound ridiculous. (Can you believe trying to convince a 15-year-old, “honey, you must think of the time when you’ll be 70”, the reaction you’d get!)
But when you have kids, you kind of start thinking about wanting to stick around for longer.
Jane Fonda convinces you that it’s never too late to start with just whatever healthy thing you’d want to pick on starting – from saving and spending rationally (yeah, define that one!), to flossing.
Just by flossing everyday, you are likely to increase your life span by a few years.

But then, what we’ll need for regular flossing is, again, willpower.
So the whole point is, it doesn’t matter whether you’re capable of thinking long-term. It matters if you have the guts to stick to one rule or task and do it.
Whether your frontal cortex is developed yet or not doesn’t throw you into the loser (or worse, drug addict) category.
It’s the willpower that you need as luggage.
Nothing else.

This brings me back to the book I started this post with – “Willpower-Rediscovering our Greatest Strength”.
A great guidance especially for parents who’d wish their kids will find, nurture and use their own willpower even while their long-term rational thinking is still unformed.


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