Nobel prize-winning economist Richard Thaler has described an interesting event early in his career revolving around a bowl of cashews and the insight that it provided. At a dinner party one evening in his home, Thaler had placed a bowl of cashews on the table while his guests were waiting for the meal to be finished preparing in the nearby kitchen. Slowly, but steadily, he found that he and his guests were devouring the cashews at the risk of eliminating their appetite for the impending dinner. When Thaler rudely removed the bowl of cashews and put them in the kitchen, he returned to find his guests relieved that he had removed the cashews and the temptation that they offered.
Of course, like any good group of economists, they instantly began analyzing what had occurred. What they had stumbled upon is now referred to as the present bias. Behavioraleconomics.com describes present bias as “the tendency of people to give stronger weight to payoffs that are closer to the present time when considering trade-offs between two future moments.” Essentially what happens is that we overvalue the thing that is in front of us and discount the value of the thing that is further in the future. In the case of Thaler and his colleagues, the cashews represented the present and the delicious dinner still sitting in the oven represented the future.
We need to recognize this bias in both us and in our children. It impacts how we make decisions and can help us understand our own impulsive actions and those of our children. As we get older we become more aware of our presents bias, but even adults need notices and reminders to make sure that were not falling into the trap of the present bias.
Dealing with the present bias is particularly challenging for adolescents who have limited or not fully developed capacity in their frontal lobe for decision-making and a strong desire to seek out and try new experiences. Their brains are more focused on the immediate rewards they can receive from having experiences with friends, even if they have the ability to evaluate experience as risky.
Parenting Strategies to Deal with Present Bias
Thaler used one simple strategy to address the present bias at his dinner party. He simply removed the cashews from the table. As parents, we can try similar strategies by reducing or removing temptations that might cause our children to make a decision that isn’t in their long-term best interest. This might mean not having snacks out for a certain period before dinner or not purchasing foods that you do not want your child eating (even if it is something that you really want to eat).
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld used a different strategy that he refers to as not breaking the chain. He uses a visual representation on a paper calendar days that are boxed are crossed out to represent days that you have been writing material. His desire to not break the chain helps support his willpower and shift his bias away from the present.
Another strategy that can be highly effective in getting an individual to shift away from their present bias is to use the nudge. Think of the nudge is a series of reminders and prompts to help you think about what is valuable. You can put this into play in your home by having conversations with your children about what’s important to them what their short and long-term goals are. Post the goals visibly in the house, maybe on the mirror in the bathroom or on the front door. You could also set reminders on smartphones or send them via email. Having these kinds of nudges in place can help reduce the weight being artificially placed on the present and move it towards the future.
For older children, you may want to engage a commitment device. Freakonomics authors Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt describe a commitment device “as a way to lock yourself into following a plan of action that you might not want to do but you know is good for you.” Essentially, you set up a reward or punishment in advance to help shift your behavior towards a preplanned goal. One frequently referenced commitment device is using a service to make a charitable donation to an organization that you are fiercely opposed to if you do not reach a certain goal. At home, this could be a commitment to do a particularly onerous chore if a personal goal is not reached.
Parenting Conversations and Present Bias
You’re not always going to be able to act preventively about the present bias and the decisions that you or your children make. The key piece is making sure that when a decision is made that over ways present gain for future gain is that you step back with your child and have a discussion about it. Reflecting on and thinking about what caused the decision to be made can help lead to better decisions in the future.
We cannot expect our children to be something other than the humans that they are. But, if we recognize our human state and address it head-on with our children we can create opportunities for them to gain better insight over their behavior and help them make better decisions in the future.