18 July 2020

What if Past and Not Character Determine How Well We Invest and Cooperate?

The history of communities and the study of successful lives suggest that the most powerful route to prosperity involves both delay of gratification and a win-win mindset that lets us cooperate with a bigger group. High-levels of prosperity trace back to high-levels of investment and cooperation. (Cooperation shows up in trade, specialization and knowledge sharing, among other things.)
As it turns out, people's willingness and ability to realize this are less defined by their vision of what is possible than their experience. Experience changes how kids perform in the classic marshmallow test, how people tend to vote, and even cultural norms that may actually trace back to genetic expression (in the form of phenotypic plasticity).

If past is this defining, one of the central questions of leadership is how you not only create a new vision for people but a new experience.
Here are excerpts from three studies about kids, voters and entire species or populations.
And here’s another twist: The inclination to wait depends on one’s experiences. “For a child accustomed to stolen possessions and broken promises, the only guaranteed treats are the ones you have already swallowed,” remarked a group of social scientists at the University of Rochester. Last year they conducted an experiment in which children were encouraged to wait for “a brand-new set of exciting art supplies” rather than using the well-worn crayons and dinky little stickers that were already available. After a few minutes, the adult returned. Half the kids received the promised, far superior materials. But the other half got only an apology: “I’m sorry, but I made a mistake. We don’t have any other art supplies after all.”
Then it was time for the marshmallow challenge. And how long did the children wait for two to appear before they gave up and ate the one sitting in front of them? Well, it depended on what had happened earlier. Those for whom the adult had proved unreliable (by failing to deliver the promised art supplies) waited only about three minutes. But those who had learned that good things do come to those who wait were willing to hold off, on average, for a remarkable twelve minutes.
Thus, the decision about whether to defer gratification may tell us what the child has already learned about whether waiting is likely to be worth it. If her experience is that it isn’t, then taking whatever is available at the moment is a perfectly reasonable choice. Notice that this finding also challenges the conclusion that the capacity to defer gratification produces various later-life benefits. Self-restraint can be seen as a result of earlier experiences, not an explanation for how well one fares later.

Other research has shown that messaging centered around the potential for cooperation and positive-sum change really appeals to educated people, while messaging that emphasizes zero-sum conflict resonates much more with non-college-educated people. Arguably, this is because college-educated professionals live really blessed lives filled with mutually beneficial exchange, while negative-sum conflicts play a very big part of working-class people’s lives, in ways that richer people are sheltered from. But it manifests in a lot of ways and leads to divergent political attitudes.
3. Phenotypic plasticity. (source: https://www.edge.org/response-detail/27196 )

The study of phenotypic plasticity has long been limited to physical traits (such as skin pigmentation). However, recent research in neuroscience, ecology and psychology has shown that phenotypic plasticity extends to behaviors. For instance, in a harsh and unpredictable environment where the future is dreary, organisms tend to adopt a short-term life strategy: maturing and reproducing earlier, investing less in offspring and in pair-bonding, being more impulsive. On the contrary, in a more favorable and predictable environment, organisms switch to a long-term strategy: maturing and reproducing later, investing in offspring and in pair-bonding, and being more patient. Importantly, these switches between present-oriented and future-oriented behaviors can affect all kind of behaviors: reproduction and growth of course, but also attitudes toward consumption, investment in learning or health, trust in others, political opinions, technological innovation, etc. In fact, every behavior (and neural structure) for which time and risk are relevant dimensions is likely to involve a certain degree of plasticity.


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