Arrogance and instant gratification

A doctor once told me that the basic difficulty with his patients was their arrogant demand to be given a pill that would instantly make their medical problem disappear. 

 Were they not taught to delay gratification? I was, and so were you. 

 We were taught at home, in school and through our approved readings and television viewing that instant gratification was the essence of being juvenile, and that to become mature (and wealthy and wise), we should delay ordering that ice cream sundae, postpone sexual intimacy until the wedding day, defer purchases that might put us in debt — to suspend full participation in life until properly prepared to appreciate it.  

Such unrelentingly joyless lessons have now gone by the boards and I’m glad to see the back of them. I delight in the ways that my grown sons and daughters-in-law are making sure that they and their children revel in life each and every step of the way, rather than waiting until they have all their ducks in a line, and I benefit from my wife’s insistence that we coddle ourselves with “small luxuries” — wonderful soaps, fluffy table napkins, ice-creams, surprise concert tickets.  

I want my ordered books delivered overnight. I won’t stand on long movie theater lines, even to buy tickets for films I really want to see — I’ll pay a dollar extra to print a ticket at home and avoid the line. I hang up the phone if  put on hold for more than a couple of minutes when attempting to talk to the utility company, credit card company or other opaque service provider.  I hate waiting for downloads to finish.

Marketers gleefully hoist us by the petard of our desire for instant gratification. Forget appeals to quality, durability, or snobbism — the bigger sales are more easily achieved through feeding our need to have everything n-o-w.

A problem “emblematic of the digital era,” according to New York Times technology reporter Jenna Wortham, is “FOMO,” Fear Of Missing Out. While sitting home alone watching a Netflix movie, she was bombarded by social network messages telling her about the exciting things that her friends were engaged in, right at that very second, and she wanted to rush out to participate in activities with friends and regretted not doing so immediately.

There are more serious implications of our addiction to instant gratification. 

As I argued in my book, “The Inarticulate Society,” shorter attention spans lead to a degrading of democracy. People who are less willing to take in information, and less able to process it because they lack the vocabulary and text-analysis strengths that come from working to develop articulateness, become inadequately informed citizens, much more likely to make poor, self-defeating decisions at the ballot box than those who are up on the issues. 

Twenty years after my book was first published, a Pew Center project report calls the 70 million millennials, also known as Generation Y, “hyperconnected,” and warns, “Negative effects include a need for instant gratification and loss of patience,” trends that are “leading to a future in which most people are shallow consumers of information.” The Boston Globe, reporting on this phenomenon, labeled it “a culture of impatience.” Another study of 6.7 million internet users found that if a video took more than two seconds to load, would-be users began to abandon it.  A five-second wait produced a 25 percent abandonment rate, and a 10-second wait, over 50 percent.

Edmund Wang, in the online magazine Poached, dubs his Generation Y as the instant gratification generation, pointing out that, “When our seemingly omnipotent gadgets take a fraction of a second longer to load, we roll our eyes so hard …. We want wonderful, high-paying jobs right from the very start, and maybe that explains our incessant organization-hopping ways.  Rags to riches story? No thanks, we want to be ahead right from the get-go.  How?  We don’t know and we don’t care, and if things do not work out once we feel we put in our fair share of hard work, we’re out of this hellhole.”

Instant gratification hurts us when we allow slogans (made by others) to crystallize our thoughts for us; when we too easily accept quick and easy answers for serious troubling questions; when our reactions to stimuli are knee jerks. In town meetings, politicians learn to their chagrin that whenever they attempt to discuss a long-term problem and a long-term approach to its solution, they are shouted down. So we get: Bar the door! Don’t buy oil from Venezuelan communists! Stop gay marriage! Raise taxes on the one percent! 

It is easier to appeal to our instant gratification urges than for politicians to teach voters what they actually know: that such complex problems as natural resource supply, immigration policy, affordable health care for all and infrastructure repair need complex, long-term solutions that cannot be achieved overnight.   

Our society’s emphasis on immediate satisfaction is a consequence of its over-emphasis on youth and its parallel denigration of old people and old ideas.  The interesting thing about any time-honored saw or adage — about any piece of wisdom that is truly worthwhile — is that it is likely to be concerned with the achieving of long-term goals rather than of satisfying short-term ones. To ignore that sort of wisdom is collective arrogance.


Tom Shachtman is the author of more than a dozen American and world histories and of documentaries seen on all the major networks. He lives in Salisbury.