Rational Impatience and marshmallows (and development)

Back in 1972 Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel conducted experiments in which he claimed to show a correlation between patience and later success in life – in the experiment kids who could wait for 15 minutes before getting two marshmallows, instead of eating one immediately, were likely to be more successful and self-controlled later in life. Michel attributed patience and self-control to some of the kids’ innate capacities.

It turns out that that might not be the case after all. Researchers in Rochester revisited the experiment and show that kids’ choices over whether to wait or not are “moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability,” in other words, kids react rationally to the proposed deal based on prior experience.

According to Celeste Kidd (more on this here), a University of Rochester grad student and lead author on the study:

“Being able to delay gratification — in this case to wait 15 difficult minutes to earn a second marshmallow — not only reflects a child’s capacity for self-control, it also reflects their belief about the practicality of waiting,”

Adding that:

“Delaying gratification is only the rational choice if the child believes a second marshmallow is likely to be delivered after a reasonably short delay.”

This reminded me of the interesting works in economic history (gated, sorry) that try to tackle issues of culture and socialization and their role in economic development. The punchline from these works is that group-specific socio-cultural values have long-lasting effects on attitudes towards investment, saving, entrepreneurship and ultimately economic development (Think of the fabled frugality and self-discipline of Weber’s protestants). Putting some of the critiques of these works aside for a moment, they are a reminder of just how COMPLEX development is.

Because material conditions both shape and are a result of prevailing cultural norms and practices (both Marx and Weber were right!) it becomes difficult to change one thing while ignoring the other (And this is even before you open the pandora’s box, viz: POLITICS). To put it simply, you cannot increase the investment rate in a society simply by throwing money at people. They will spend it on a new shrine for their god or marry a third wife.

This is not to say that it is impossible to transform entire societies in a short while, just that it is not easy, and that we should be humble enough to accept this fact when thinking about how to promote economic development in the bottom billion societies of the world.

kenyan ethnic groups arming ahead of 2012

I just read this on the BBC and can’t stop wishing that it is all hype. The report quotes a number of Kenyans – mostly from the Rift Valley – who seem to be acknowledging that segments of the Kenyan population are arming ahead of the 2012 elections. And this time round instead of machetes and bows and arrows they are getting guns, machine guns. A Kenyan working for an NGO in Eldoret confirmed the BBC report.

I am assuming, or rather hoping that the Kenyan intelligence community is not sleeping on the job like they did in the run-up to the 2007 elections. If people are buying machine guns it can only mean one thing. If Kenya is ever to have a civil war it will be fought in the Rift Valley. Other political conflicts in Kenya have always been over the sharing of divisible goods – mainly payoffs in terms of good jobs and chances for sleaze among the many ethnic entrepreneurs that populate the Kenyan political landscape. But the conflict in the Rift Valley will be about a somewhat indivisible good – LAND. Those that own the land will not let go or share it easily, more so if they have machine guns. And those that think that the land was taken from them wrongly will perhaps  also be willing to fight for the land, more so if they also have machine guns.

The contest in 2012 just seems to get messier and messier. Kibaki should consider calling a snap election and then stepping down. That may catch the plotters unawares and bring a decisive victory to one party or the other. May be then the government will be able to deal with all these issues – land, judicial reforms, security etc – without the many distractions that the current government faces.

And in other news, Jaindi Kisero (one of my favorite columnists) has a piece on the slightly positive signs the Kenyan economy has shown so far. If only the nation’s political class would get its act togehter…

I also found this discussion on the IMF and WB interesting.

One, more thing.  Last week I attended a talk by Paul Romer on Charter cities. The idea is as exciting as it is provocative. I still don’t know what to make of it though. Read more about it here.