Why is it so hard to escape short-term thinking? Biology and technology
- Short-termism is a common affliction and an ancient habit. But our short-term tendencies are getting worse, precisely at a time when we need to measure our actions' impacts long into the future.
- The rapid pace of technological development, particularly when untethered to ethics, exacerbates presentism, heightening our short-term tendencies. It doesn't allow us to think outside the immediate moment.
- We don’t need to be perfect to take on short-termism or to start building better futures. Flawed as we are, we can still fight to become better humans and to craft a better humanity.
Excerpted from Longpath: Becoming the Great Ancestors Our Future Needs by Ari Wallach and published by HarperOne. Copyright 2022. Republished with permission of the publisher.
As a consultant to major institutions ranging from the United Nations to Facebook, I would sit down with people and say, “Let’s talk about your future,” and they’d respond, “Great, I’m willing to look far out—like, even eight months!” Lest you think those folks are outliers, dig deeper and you’ll see their response is pretty normal. These are not bad people, or unintelligent people. They’re just human beings living in a system that rewards short-termism: an impulse to seek rapid solutions and rewards.
We are all guilty of short-termism. For instance, let’s say you’re looking to buy a house. Your realtor shows you a new development where the construction is solid and the neighborhood schools are stellar. You’re won over by the large yard and stately front porch, and you are elated that you can actually afford it. Your offer is accepted, and you move in. A few years later, a big storm hits and your house is in danger of flooding. You throw as many sandbags as possible in the way of the rising water. But that doesn’t get at the deeper problem, which is that your home is built on a floodplain (why was the development allowed to be built there in the first place?), or that global warming is putting your home at risk not just today but for the next series—no, decades—of storms. Still, the sandbags work, your home is saved, and you forget about the problem until the next storm. I call this a sandbag strategy, and folks—including me—use it everywhere. (“Gideon, finish your broccoli if you want dessert!” “Hey Ms. CEO, buy back those stocks to increase the share price. Your bonus will rise, never mind what it means for long-term investment in your workers!”)
This scenario highlights the many layers of short-termism working against us. The blocks we face as humans happen at the neurological level (“I’ll be happy if I live in this shiny, beautiful house!”), at the societal level (“As a grownup, I should really own a home.”), and at the level of the systems we’ve created all around us (“The schools in this neighborhood are great, so if I buy here, my kid will get higher test scores.”). But throughout this home-purchasing and home-saving process, you didn’t realize all that was going on below the surface. In fact, somewhere between 80 to 95 percent of our decision-making happens this way, and we have to own that truth before we can do anything else. Yet, short-termism isn’t exactly a sexy issue to bring attention to. There aren’t marches for ending short-termism, or wristbands showing your solidarity with Longpath. No celebrity is going to take it up as their cause, because we all are guilty of it in one form or another, and no one wants to be called a hypocrite. But as this chapter and the subsequent ones show, we don’t need to be perfect to take on short-termism or to start building better futures. Flawed as we are, we can still fight to become better humans, and to craft a better humanity.
Our Short-Term Minds
There is a reason we often think short-term: Even though we live in a time with a “humans shall inherit the earth and have dominion over nature” narrative, we are all—every last one of us—basically very evolved apes. This means that there are biological hurdles in front of us as we pursue a shift from short-term to long-term thinking and acting. Understanding this will help us recognize some of our instincts, but also what we’re capable of when we outgrow those ancient habits and start cultivating new thought processes.
At some level, short-termism is a good thing, a response our hunter-gatherer ancestors needed to survive. If you were walking along thirty thousand years ago and saw a bunch of berries, you didn’t just eat a couple and presume more would come eventually. You ate everything you could possibly fit into your stomach, because at an instinctual level you understood you needed to take immediate advantage of what was in front of you.
So it’s not that short-termism is completely villainous. The problems arise when we start building in incentive structures so that we carry short-termism on in our daily life at the expense of our future self, and—perhaps most important—the expense of future generations. The problems expand because Intertidals heighten our short-term impulses. Remember that a hallmark of these chaotic periods is systems breaking down—and when we truly feel out of control, we seek immediate safety. We want to feel stable. So we seek whatever ultra-short-term fixes will provide that. We run from the tiger instead of stopping to read the book What to Do When Chased by a Tiger. We let the wiring that compelled us to grab the berries in the Serengeti drive our every decision.
Our short-term tendencies are getting worse, and not just because we’re in an Intertidal—we’re also stuck in a hamster wheel of presentism. I happen to be friends and neighbors with Douglas Rushkoff, who writes about this phenomenon—among other topics—for a living. While most neighbors sit around comparing lawns, Douglas and I sit and fret about whether the plastic-sided pool we erected for our kids to share during the pandemic summer will outlast civilization, and whether buying the pool in the first place hastens that end. Presentism, Douglas often says, is what comes after futurism. “Where we spent a century or more leaning forward toward the future,” he wrote, “addicted to growth, and speculating on whatever might be next, we are now in an era that emphasizes the present. The here and now.” He’s not referring to the Buddhist understanding of the here and now, but rather a Hall of Mirrors version of it, where everything happens at once, and now, and where there is no history or future. And even more insidious is how presentism robs us of our ability to truly imagine a different world, a different tomorrow. When there is no past or future and just The Now, we become complacent and accepting of what is and lose our ability to even ask “How might we?”
A great way to visualize this, courtesy of Douglas, is an analog clock versus a digital clock. If you even have access to an analog clock, look at it. You see the whole day laid out before you. You see the relationship of six to nine. You see the seconds ticking away, moving you forward in time millimeter by millimeter. But with a digital clock, you only see the exact time that it is, right now. It’s not part of something bigger, it just is. The problem with this, of course, is, well, what a bummer. Imagine all that we don’t see when all we can see is right in front of us. When we can’t actually see that we’re just specks in the grand scheme of time.
The rapid pace of technological development, particularly when untethered to ethics, exacerbates presentism, heightening our short-term tendencies. Take schools and grading, for instance. When I was a kid, my report card came in the mail twice a year, leading to a conversation with my parents about school and perhaps a celebratory dinner at Sorrento’s Pizzeria. My parents knew nothing about my daily assignments or quiz scores, but they knew I was a reasonably intelligent kid who would find my way, and they kept most of their focus on molding me as a good human being.
Now thanks to apps like Grade Tracker, I’m not the only parent to be notified when their kid doesn’t turn in their Spanish homework. Students, too, can see their grade change for the better or worse in real time. It’s the embodiment of the digital clock, and it changes the equation from the big-picture, long-term issues (am I raising a good human being?) to one of instant reactions (why didn’t my kid do better on that math quiz?).
Consider, too, the experiences of kids like my daughters, Ruby and Eliana, who, in addition to getting their grades in real time, are also getting their social approval that way. We’ve all seen teenagers glued to their phones, waiting for the next “ding” to alert them that they’ve been tagged in someone’s photo, or that someone has “liked” their latest post. What is that doing to their brains and the quality of their thoughts and feelings? If you think about the brain as a spotlight, that spotlight is only looking three or four feet around. There’s an old Hindu parable you may have heard about a mystic searching for his key on the ground. When someone stops to help him look, that person asks where exactly he dropped it. “In my own house,” says the mystic. “Then why are you looking here?” the helper asks. The mystic then explains, “There’s more light here.” Similarly, that teenager doesn’t think about who they are or who they want to be—they’re just looking at where the light’s shining. They don’t talk to the friend in need sitting next to them because that friend on TikTok has posted a sad-face emoji. They’re apt to forget what an actual sad face looks like, and how to read it. And their brains become so addicted to the dopamine rush that “ding!” offers them that it takes more and more to satisfy them. The brain is in a perpetual stance of awaiting the next hit.