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, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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