Timespan as a Measure of Capability

There is a famous psychology experiment using marshmallows and children to illustrate delayed gratification. Walter Mischel’s study collected data about participants and their choice to eat one marshmallow now OR wait fifteen minutes for the promise of a second marshmallow. Participants were then assessed years later where stark differences were observed related to academic achievement, health, obesity and SAT scores.

While the study seems to indicate a subject’s willpower or self-control, it can also be seen to illustrate an individuals timespan framework. What sacrifice can be made now for an improved future outcome?

Why organize for a better future outcome? Why not eat the marshmallow, or all the marshmallows now? If the problem is hunger, it certainly seems like a proper solution. Except, at some point, we might get full. And, we might even have some marshmallows left over for later. Boom. Delayed gratification becomes a concept in the scenario “Be kind to your future self.”

It also opens up the possibility of being kind to other people with our leftover marshmallows. In children, we see this as sharing. In adults, we see this as trade. Sharing is not a one-sided transaction, it is sharing now with the promise (at least hope) that at some time in the future, when we are out of marshmallows, that a friend would reciprocate.

This example illustrates short timespan options, but what if the organizational sacrifice is larger? Can we organize more complex sacrifices to solve more complex problems? Can we commit our time in research and study with no near-term payoff to create a technology in the future that will solve more complex problems?

What sacrifice can be made now for an improved future outcome? A bag of marshmallows might satiate immediate hunger, but what about our hunger for tomorrow? And what about next week? It has been said that man cannot live by marshmallows alone, so what of the health impact of a diet of sugar treats? Enlarging the problem of feeding an individual to feeding a family, to feeding a community, to feeding a nation-state, it is not just detail complexity, but complexity defined by the uncertainty of the future.

Would you agree there are some problems in the world that most people can solve?  But, as the complexity of the problem increases, some of those people will struggle. We can measure that complexity in timespan.

Timespan becomes a proxy for problem complexity with a concomitant proxy as a measure of human capability.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.