Strive Today, Thrive Tomorrow
by JASHAN AHUJA
The rules of the game were simple. Approximately 30 participants were involved in the interactive simulation, each challenged with the directive of increasing their individual ‘wealth’ through periodic trading sessions. ‘Wealth’ was defined by the possession of trading chip combinations, which translated to point values according to a predetermined key. Between each trading round all players were grouped into one of 3 different strata (in the game identified as “Squares”, “Triangles”, and “Circles”) based on their accumulated wealth, and provided with a random draw of more ‘resources’ (trading chips). On the surface, wealth was the result of luck of the draw and skill in the trading arena. Unbeknownst to players at the time, each of the strata received different resources, loaded to match their wealth such that the top stratus received the best resources. This loaded draw reduced mobility but through random draw and skillful trading the occasional player from a lower stratus could move up and vice versa. After several rounds of trading the top strata was given the authority to define a new rule (or indeed several) for the game and play would continue with these new directives in place.
Initially designed by Garry Shirts for Simulation Training Systems in 1969, this game is popularly known as StarPower. It attempts to create a limited-mobility, three-tiered system as a framework to highlight the effects on human behavior of a power differential based on wealth and ability to re-write the rules. As is likely apparent by now, the simulation acts as a mirror for society that reflects how even a set of simple rules can have profound, and inflexible, effects on those who chose to play the game—competition for loaded resources, high-stakes exchanges, and a ‘wealth’ disparity all contribute to top earners having a disproportionate level of control on everyone’s outcome.
So how does the game end? Well, in most iterations the competition absorbs the players and when it enters the end game (by which I mean the point when the most ‘wealthy’ can create new rules for the simulation), harsh rules are imposed on all other participants by this top tier. When I played the game (during a Leadership program called LeaderShape) these measures included arbitrary trading chip advantages for the wealthy, purposely loaded draw bags, and a slew of similar possible new rules. It would seem power indeed corrupts even when the rewards are non-consequential, for there was no monetary or other prize on offer. However, every once in a while a different perspective is brought to the fore, and I was fortunate to witness this exception to the natural order during my time at the top. Half-way through the New Rules discussion a member of this wealthy class called for caution and proposed we step out of the game, instead looking forward in time to dinner, the evening, and the rest of the week’s program activities. There was no reward for winning this arbitrary competition, and no motive to win besides winning itself. Instead unfair rules would only create resentment after the game’s conclusion, and further problems down the road. This bigger picture perspective quickly changed the mind of the group, and the outcome was a rejection of the prescribed paradigm. While, unsurprisingly, the greatest resistance was put forth by those at the top–the richest of the rich, best suited to win and with the most to lose by taking this more forward-looking approach—in the end, the collective became evidently more important than the immediate, but isolating pleasure of winning by yourself.
Examining the game more closely however, what can we learn? Since its conclusion, I have come to view it through a different lens. If we consider the motives of everyone at play and apply a sense of scale to the proceedings, we notice three main drivers for the behavior on show: 1) at the individual level every player is driven by the directive to accumulate wealth and the sense of competition; 2) at the group level creative collaboration showcases the advantages of working together as part of a larger entity (for example the lower ‘stratus’ stockpiled resources in a single individual to encourage his or her mobility up the ladder and allow their views to be represented); 3) but perhaps most intriguingly, at the ‘global’ level the recognition of future gains and the ability to delay gratification can often produce outcomes that benefit everyone involved. Let us start at the end, and examine how this delayed gratification might manifest itself in our truly global polychotomy.
Systematic Delayed Gratification
In a famous study in the 1960s, Stanford professor Walter Mischel carried out a series of psychological tests on young children. He would sit down with a child in a room and present them with a marshmallow. He would then inform the child that he was leaving the room for a short while and if the marshmallow remained when he returned then they would get a second marshmallow. The choice for the child was clear; one marshmallow now or two later. If the child was able to delay gratification they would be rewarded. Participants’ behavior varied, with some eating the marshmallow straight away and others holding out for the full 15 minutes until Walter returned and rewarded the behavior with a second marshmallow. The continuation of this study, where students’ were observed in the years following, showed that those who resisted the marshmallow had higher SAT scores and were healthier, among other successes.
As an immediate thought, we can see that delaying gratification is difficult, but the self-control it requires (as the full study highlights) demonstrated beneficial outcomes in the future. Doing homework early, for instance, instead of going out to play means you have more time to learn the material properly and can perform better down the road through school and college. Similarly, in our StarPower scenario above, delaying gratification of winning the game in favor of dissolving it would result in a more positive experience for the rest of the group, arguably strengthening the social dynamic afterward and making for a more memorable, rather than sour, evening.
On a larger scale, in our global system we have many economic and political models that have each shown success over time. We can see this delayed gratification at play in some of the present-day, more high-preforming socialist models (for example in Scandinavia). There, socialism is traditionally equated with ensuring everyone is equal and resources are distributed evenly. But examining the system from a higher vantage point, looking at the whole instead of the individual, and the system performance instead of the personnel successes, brings into focus the relevance of using delayed gratification as a framework to understand their model of governance.
Even in the United States a prime example of the benefits of delayed gratification at a systematic level are evident with investment in the environment. With no oversight or forward-looking approach, lack of spending today would not result in maintained national parks, tomorrow. This sort of delayed gratification (or this “long-term investment” in, perhaps, more capitalist terms), is key to sustaining viable futures. And when it comes to more difficult and divisive issues such as climate change, increasingly larger timespans of delayed gratification are exacerbated by the required sacrifice in the short term: instead of avoiding a marshmallow for 15 minutes people would have to change their daily behavior significantly and the rewards would come many years or even generations after those initial actions.
It is all very well to look to the future, but we must also not overlook the more immediate and tangible benefits of operating in a group (and yes, I am referring to the tribal benefits highlighted as the second take-away from StarPower: the advantages that one gains by operating within such an aforementioned group). During the game, individuals were ultimately motivated to work together to achieve their own ends (whether it was the lower stratus sending a person up the ladder, or the upper ‘stratus’ sharing ideas and defining rules to benefit their whole stratus). Let’s explore this further.
One of the great threats to a purely capitalist economy with little regulation is the trend towards unequal income distribution. We can see this play out in many capitalist western economies in the present day, as well as in our StarPower simulation. In the game and the real world lower ‘stratus’ or ‘class’ become disillusioned and lose motives to work hard for self-betterment. Beyond limited mobility, if people are unable to contribute to society they can in turn become a net burden on a system. We can see this burden manifest itself in modern day healthcare systems, and especially when comparing the US to more socialist models in Europe. The US system is driven by individual motives and profits, from the doctor’s clinic that may over-prescribe superfluous medical tests to insurance companies that take a cut of the profits. If people cannot afford healthcare and preventative medication the overall cost to the system ends up being greater. Many socialist European healthcare models do remove the individual choice, but belonging to this type of system provides reliable tangible benefits for individuals as well as overall savings across the board for the country. This type of model is not just providing future benefits, but showcases the benefits of working in a ‘group’ and pooling resources to achieve the best average outcome for everybody even in a relatively immediate fashion.
Does Competition Have a Place in Society?
Early airplane evacuation tests were hailed as a great success. In under 90 seconds you could evacuate hundreds of people from an aircraft through carefully designed procedures and a perfectly behaved group of test passengers. Yet, in the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) conducted a study that attempted to better represent real-world behavior by offering financial incentives to select participants. What happened? Well, these previously organized and cooperative passengers erupted in a frenzy and disregarded steward instructions—blindingly making their way to the nearest exit as quickly as possible. Their haste inspired other participants to behave in-kind and also to evacuate more quickly. The most notable negative was damage to the plane’s interior as participants clambered over each other to escape. Additionally, the National Transportation Board of the United States (in a separate investigation from 1997 to 1999) found injury to passengers increased to 8% in these heightened situations. In other words, in both situations all passengers made it out on time. However, in the un-incentivized plane everyone reached safety uninjured while in the incentivized plane, everyone made it out more quickly, but occurring at the behest of the passengers who sustained injuries—the latter, some would argue, a perfectly acceptable opportunity-cost of the more rapid evacuation (the key metric) that resulted from competition.
On that note, thus far, the concept of delayed gratification and its relationship to more socialist models has been explored. Yet, we have to look no further than our StarPower simulation or the airplane evacuation studies mentioned above to identify one important aspect of competition: creativity. In the game, competition spurred creative ways to increase individual 'wealth' while on the plane, competition resulted in non-typical exit strategies (clambering on top of seats rather than using the illuminated pathways).
From our earliest days, competition has been built into our evolutionary pathway and it is prevalent in every aspect of society: from athletics to academia, from professional to personal matters. Creativity is the result of wanting to increasingly maximize the solution to any given problem and best the environment around us. It very obviously spurs technological advancements, and it is by no mistake that the United States under its heavily capitalist model, has truly excelled in this arena in the past century. The eradication of Polio, air travel, the internet…all resulted in creativity bred from a competition for increased profit, pleasure or protection (as advancements with a military genesis often have). One could say these societal advancements might have come at a cost, but few of us would give up our health or connectivity today that was made possible through the desire and competition for advancement.
So, how can systems which are predicated upon delayed gratification (and associated to benefits to a group) be positively reconciled with humanity’s need for individualistic immediate gratification? Looking at the airplane study above, maximizing complete safety for all passengers (through both a safe and quick evacuation) is the directive. But, what about our current systems? Our views of the environment? Our relationships to each other, whether as people, or nations?
The answer is beyond the scope of this writing, but a potential avenue for further discussion. Yet, it might not even be too long before we arrive at those answers as well. In April 2015, the Capital Institute released a 120-page report titled “Regenerative Capitalism, How Universal Principles and Patterns will Shape Our New Economy.” Calling for a new economic model between socialism and capitalism, the study calls for us to critically engage with current systems to ensure longevity into the next age. It states that the world economic system is heavily dependent on the environment and natural resources, and current economic models produce great levels on inequality. So, it would behoove certain systems to be maximized for the group (for example in aspects of healthcare), while retaining individualistic competition elements to drive innovation and advancements (as exemplified in the technology industry). Beyond these symbiotic opposites we can look to delayed gratification as a directive for governments to responsibly invest in the future. As societies adapt to a changing environment a new economic and social system may prove necessary. In its design we ought to consider the dynamics of delayed gratification and what a simple game like StarPower has to teach us.
Clear, James. Delayed Gratification. Web. Retrieved from: http://jamesclear.com/delayed-gratification
Fullerton, John. Regenerative Capitalism: How Universal Principles And Patterns Will Shape Our New Economy. The Capital Institute. April, 2015. Web.
OTA Panel. Aircraft Evacuation Testing: Research and Technology Issues; Chapter 3 - Research and Technologies for Evacuation Systems. September, 1993. Print.
Mukhopadhyay, Carol C. Starpower: Experiencing a Stratified Society: Henze and Moses, 2014. Print
Urist, Jacoba. What the Marshmallow Test Really Teaches About Self-Control: The Atlantic, 2014. Web. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/09/what-the-marshmallow-test-really-teaches-about-self-control/380673
Jashan Ahuja can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.