The Marshmallow and the Cherry

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Earlier in the year Jonah Lehrer explained in the New Yorker how cool deferred gratification is and how we need to teach it to our kids, the younger the better. Now, in the New York Times, John Tierney suggests that it's really an insidious habit for grownups, sacrificing real enjoyment for the mirage of an even better future. Can everything good be bad for you?

Of course the respective sets of behavioral research described might be consistent. Children who master delaying pleasure become superior achievers and thus have the frequent flier balances that they are so counterproductively hoarding. The same kindergartners who in a famous experiment triumphantly resisted the urge to eat a marshmallow probably will morph into affluent adults who save bottles of vintage Champagne for occasions so special they may never take place.

One person at least long ago found the secret of combining the two ethics. The charismatic but workaholic advertising man David Ogilvy, the subject of a recent biography, loved to tell a story of his own childhood when coaching his staff on client presentations:

When I was a boy, I always saved the cherry on my pudding for last. Then, one day, my sister stole it. From then on, I always ate the cherry first.
(Image credit: Flickr users John-Morgan and Bensonkua)
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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center and holds a Ph.D in European history. More

Edward Tenner is an independent writer and speaker on the history of technology and the unintended consequences of innovation. He holds a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Chicago and was executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and John Simon Guggenheim fellow, he has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. He is now an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center, where he remains a senior research associate.

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