Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Myopic discounting

Myopic discounting is the tendency of people to prefer a large late reward to a small early one but then to flip their preference as time passes and both rewards draw nearer.  For eg., you decide before dinner to skip dessert (a small early reward) in order to lose weight (a large late one) but succumb to temptation at the time of placing the order. Or a person will give up smoking in order not to risk lung cancer but will start smoking again when friends tempt him. In How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker writes about an economist named Schelling:
Though myopic discounting remains unexplained,Schelling captures something important about its psychology when he roots the paradox of self-control in the modularity of the mind. He observes that "people behave sometimes as if they had two selves: one who wants clean lungs and long life and another who adores tobacco, or one who wants a lean body and anther who wants dessert, or one who yearns to improve himself by reading Adam Smith on self-command...and another who would rather watch an old movie on television. The two are in continual contest for control." When the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, such as in pondering a diet-busting dessert, we can feel two very different kinds of motives fighting within us, one responding to sights and smells, the other to doctors' advice.
I observed myopic discounting happening in me a few months ago when Jaya had to undergo a routine operation to remove the gall bladder. She was suffering from occasional pain in the abdomen and scans had revealed the presence of gall stones. She was told that surgery was not urgent because the issue with gallstones is that only a third of population with gall bladder stones become symptomatic and the rest stay undiagnosed or have no symptoms and can live with it all their life. She could wait and if the pain became frequent later, she could have the surgery.

The problem was that if she had to go in for surgery later and there was no home nurse at that time who could understand my dumb charades then we would find ourselves caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Or between a rock and a hard place. Whichever was worse. (One wag said that Bush was caught between Iraq and a hard place!) At that point of time there was a home nurse who could understand me so we felt that it wold be safer to get  the surgery done immediately rather than wait for a later time when we may be caught between, well, maybe Scylla and Charybdis.

But as the date of the surgery neared, I began to hesitate. Jaya will not be able to lift any weight for some days so perhaps I will not be shifted to the chair for a while? The watchman volunteered to do it along with the nurse but I was not sure how they will manage. The nurse could understand my dumb charades but Jaya will not not be able to assist for a while so there will be some discomfort. Maybe Jaya belongs to the 2/3 part of the population who live comfortably with gall bladder stones? Is prompt surgery really required?

Fortunately I resisted the temptation to postpone the surgery. Everything went off quite well and I only had minor discomforts during Jaya's period of rest. The alternative scenario of perhaps having surgery when there may have been no nurse would have been a nightmare.

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