In the late 1960s, the psychologist Walter Mischel introduced the famous marshmallow test. Children were offered the choice between one smaller reward — in the most famous version of the experiment, a marshmallow — or two rewards if they could wait 15 minutes. In the meantime, the experimenter left the child alone in the room to be tempted.
This study captures the idea of time-discounting — or how people weigh outcomes at different points in time. Some people are future-oriented while others value what they can get immediately. People’s orientation toward time-discounting has consequences: In Mischel’s research, the ability to wait for a future reward was related to SAT scores, drug use, weight control and academic performance.
Time-discounting is relevant to politics too. Indeed, this has been evident for a long time. In 1835, for example, the political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville wrote: “One of the characteristics of democratic times is that all men have a taste for easy successes and immediate pleasures. … Men do not want to think beyond tomorrow.”
Newer research has born out Tocqueville’s emphasis on this characteristic. Take voter turnout. The cost of voting is immediate: registering to vote, taking time off work, finding transportation to the polls and perhaps waiting in a long line. However, many benefits of voting are distant. It will often take months, if not years, for the winning candidates to implement the policies that their supporters prefer — and those efforts could easily fail entirely.
In short, voters who care more about the future — those who would, in essence, wait for the larger reward rather than just eat the marshmallow in front of them — should be much likely to vote. And that is exactly what at least one study of undergraduate students has found (although even future-oriented voters may not be more likely to vote if they cynically believe that all candidates are the same).
Future-oriented voters are different in other ways as well. They are more likely to evaluate how politicians have handled the economy based on the overall national economy rather than their own personal financial circumstances. My ongoing research in Taiwan and Ukraine finds that they are also more likely to join peaceful demonstrations and fight against potential military invasion.
Looking across countries, I also find that when a country’s population is more future-oriented, the country tends to have a stronger democracy and less corruption.
Thus, programs that increase self-control and future orientation may have an indirect political impact. For example, the political scientist John Holbein has found that an elementary school’s self-control training program in 1991-1993 increased students’ turnout rate in 2004-2012 by 11 percentage points. Self-control can arise in other ways as well. Recent studies find that education, religion and group identity may increase future orientation.
In short, just as the perfectly toasted marshmallow requires the patience to wait in front of the camp fire, so too might the healthy functioning of democracy.
Austin Horng-En Wang is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at Duke University. You can follow him on Twitter at @wearytolove.