Thursday, 13 January 2011

"I want it all, and I want it now" - cultural decline and the demand for gratfication

A couple of days ago, I posted a piece on the differences one woman identified between Chinese and ‘Western’ approaches to parenting. I didn’t realize at the time that the woman concerned had just written a book on the entire subject, nor did I know that there is a phenomenon called the Tiger Mother.
“How did I miss this?” you may ask. The answer is that the original article caught my eye because of a number of other concerns.
The first, and most pressing, is a conviction that the hegemony of the West is over. Europe and North America, in particular, have had their day and by the end of this century will simply be ‘bit players’ on a very different global stage.
That, I think, is an unremarkable suggestion, but the reason for it I myself would advance is that the ‘NATO’ culture is exhausted. The book to read is Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, where one can see how the astonishingly vibrant culture of medieval Europe finally gave way to dullness and indifference somewhere in the second half of the twentieth century. We have reached almost the end of a long trail, and are witnessing the passing of the old culture and the advent of the new.
That is life — cultures come and cultures go. But my second concern lies with the influences on, and from, this exhaustion. What human qualities are fed by, and feed into, our present Western culture? And that is where parenting comes into the picture.
One of the great challenges of being human is the delay of gratification. That is to say, we set aside an immediate pleasure (whether it be of doing one thing or stopping doing another) for the sake of a future pleasure, either of enjoying the same thing later or of enjoying something else even more.
Indeed, I would suggest that a conscious delay of gratification is one of the defining qualities of being human. Experiments with animals show that the greater the reward, the more strongly reinforced tends to be the behaviour that elicits that reward. (Combine this with frequent but irregular supply of the reward and the behaviour can become compulsive.)
Because we have an animal nature, the same is also broadly true of us. Why else does sex have such a powerful effect on the way we behave, especially when we are younger? However, human beings can also, by nature, step back from the action-gratification cycle. We can reflect on it, and rationalize about it, and therefore we can actually make choices as to how and, importantly, when we are gratified.
Thus an adult may choose not to eat sweets (delaying the gratifying experience) in order to achieve, later on, the pleasure of weight-loss. Or they may choose not to buy something they would quite like now in order to save up for something else they really want in the future.
Such observations are commonplace, but the underlying attitude depends on two fundamental considerations. The first is a conviction that there will be a future point at which such delayed gratification can finally be enjoyed. The second is that the future gratification will be, in some way, greater than the immediately available gratification.
To the extent to which these considerations are weakened, however, delayed gratification will tend to give way to immediate gratification. If I knew that I would die tomorrow, I would certainly not be abstaining from chocolate today.
This is the presumption behind the ‘Bucket List’ phenomenon. There are things to do ‘before you die’ precisely because you are going to die and then you will not be able to do them. The same, however, can be applied within our individual lifespan. There are things you can do when you are young which you will not be able to do when you are old, and so on.
Of course there is a balance to be struck between delay and gratification. Without eventual gratification, there would be nothing to provide motivation for the delay. On the other hand, if the possibility of gratification seems too remote, or if the immediate gratification seems too desirable, then again delay will lose its attraction.
The point, though, is that the interplay between gratification and delay is both influenced by, and has influence on, a given cultural group, whether that be, to give just a few examples, a family, a tribe, a community, a team or a nation.
Thus Amy Chua’s ‘Tiger Mother’ approaches the question of music practice or homework on the principle, first of all, that not doing these things is itself a ‘gratification’ which must be delayed. Why she thinks this doubtless has much to do with her own enculturation — how she was brought up and what she learned about motherhood — but the effect is obvious: her children now excel at these things which required so much effort and, indeed, caused so many tears.
The contrast with a family where the immediate gratification of not doing homework or music practice takes priority will be obvious. The children will, doubtless, be happy with their immediate lot, but in general they will not advance academically or artistically as far as the children of the ‘Tiger Mother’ household.
Which, then, is better? The answer depends on your views on a number of issues. The most obvious would be parental discipline, the application of which is itself a form of delayed gratification. Who wants to spend hours making children do their homework when we could all sit and watch the TV?
Another obvious issue would be one’s view of later attainment in life. If you want academic or artistic success, the foundations are best laid in childhood. But is this worth the actual price at the time? Who really cares whether you get good piano grades? What does it matter in the final analysis?
But there is also the basic question of what it means to be human. Is, for example, the person who enjoys — who indeed can play — Mozart a better human being than one who cannot share that enjoyment, someone whose musical development goes no further than, say, the ‘top twenty’? If the answer is ‘yes’, then delayed gratification is not just a means to material ends but a key to human development.
And if we find these examples from academia or the arts too culturally biased in themselves, consider the area of sport, where again great achievement demands great sacrifice. This is masked, of course, by the fact that sport, especially in its early stages, involves ‘play’. Nevertheless, to progress is intensely demanding.
Indeed, it is worth asking, again, whether a culture which emphasizes practice and discipline at an early stage will not produce more able athletes than one which relies on self-motivation and the emergence of the odd ‘genius’.
There is no doubt in my mind that a culture of delayed gratification is not only conducive towards, but essential for, developing both greatness in our achievements and fullness in our humanity.*
What has happened in the West, however, is the shrinking of our perspective regarding the extent to which gratification can and should be delayed. Not least, of course, this is affected by the decline of religious faith. In one sense delayed gratification is of the essence of faith — especially (though not exclusively) the Christian faith. Thus the believer is willing to delay gratification even of sexual desires if this is seen as conducive to a greater gratification that lies beyond this world.
But there are other ‘horizons’ which have contracted, whilst the immediate ‘moment’ has extended its demands.
To give one example, I remember reading the complaint of a football coach that the skills of young players were defective because the emphasis on Saturday mornings in the park was all on winning. What he pointed out was that to be able to improve some skills you had to try something you couldn’t do. Thus you had to accept ‘suffering’ your own incompetence at kicking with your weak foot if you were to emerge on the other side as a different kind of player. The ethos of the football-playing culture, however, meant that neither coaches nor players were prepared to live with short-term deprivation of success and admiration for the sake of the long-term future of either the player or the game.
Above all, there is the overarching question of what a culture as a whole sees as its collective ‘rationale’. And here is a key question for the West: “Why are we here? What is our purpose in handing on the gift of life itself from one generation to another, and how should we encourage our children to live in the short-term in order to achieve these longer-term goals?”
These are surely fundamental questions. And I am not saying that the ‘Tiger Mother’ has a good answer. On the contrary, I have no doubt that many such parents living in the West are simply running on the momentum of their cultural inheritance, without yet realizing the tank is dry. But we who are more embedded in Western culture are confronted with the questions more starkly precisely because we are no longer able to maintain the trajectory generated by that faith in the future or sense of duty towards family and country which motivated our grandparents.
If, in the end, there is really nothing much for the individual to look forward to, then the delay of gratification will become increasingly pointless. The result will be an unwillingness to struggle or strive in the present. Instead, carpe diem will come to mean ‘seize the pleasures of the day’. As Queen put it, “I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now.” Or as it says in the Judaeo-Christian Scriptures, “Let us eat and drink ... for tomorrow we die.”
John P Richardson
13 January 2011
Anonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.

* "Carol Dweck from Stanford University in the US, has demonstrated that students who understand intelligence is malleable rather than fixed are much more intellectually ambitious and successful.
The same dynamic applies to talent. This explains why today's top runners, swimmers, bicyclists, chess players, violinists and on and on, are so much more skilful than in previous generations.
All of these abilities are dependent on a slow, incremental process which various micro-cultures have figured out how to improve." See here.


  1. Excellent post.

    Count me as one of those delayed gratification types. The bucket list to me is a list of things that can wait to be enjoyed after I die.

  2. Rt Rev Dominic Stockford14 January 2011 at 17:22

    Instant gratification is permeating the Christian church faster than most people realise. The need to personally 'feel good' is played to by many Christian denominations (as well as by the non-Christian ones too). They provide (a horrible word for it if you think about it) services which strike a chord with people and which fulfil the needs that people feel. They are no longer God-centred, which is incredibly demanding, but are rather person-centred - which means that the challenge of the Gospel is minimized or even removed, and the emotional feelings of those present are put at the head of the queue of things that are important.

    Therefore, Pentecostalism, Charismatics and even Roman style so-called 'beauty' are found very attractive because they make the worshipper feel good, and because they fulfil some deep-seated need of the worshipper to think that God is this wonderful chap and that everything is wonderful really.

    A sermon on such passages as "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" are about as welcome in most churches today as I am!

  3. I do appreciate Mr Stockford's point about beautiful worship etc. Many "aesthete" Christians (I'm just as much one as anyone else) need reminding, occasionally, that Jesus did not come to give us lovely aesthetic experiences, but rather to suffer for the Truth. At least I can honestly say that I don't on the whole like "church" and services, etc. (some of the militant atheists have the idea that people go for religion because they like "that kind of thing", ie hymns, prayers, etc. - how wrong they are!)

  4. Hi John, I first heard of this book in your blog. Here's a blog post of mine on the subject which might interest you.