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Marshmallows, The “balance” and the choice between Vegas and Pyongyang

I’ve never been a fan of the phrase “Good things come to those who wait”.

It assumes that being passive in life gets you anywhere when in actual fact the opposite is more likely the case.

However there is plenty of evidence (the most famous being the outcomes of the children taking part in the Stanford marshmallow experiment) that individuals who are able to delay gratification have better ‘outcomes in life’ including better control of their weight, higher academic and career achievement and there have been studies which show it’s impact has the potential to stretch as far as improved mental health and happiness.

Interestingly a recent study has shown that there is evidence that delaying gratification is more likely a learned behaviour (something that always seemed to make sense to me but has now been validated by the findings of the report).

This is a subject of particular interest to me. I spend loads of (and possibly way too much) time thinking about, reading about and studying how people think, how our brains work and how this relates to our relationships with our money in particular, but also how we live our lives and how we stay healthy for as long as possible.

That’s why the recent articles by Phil Young and Martin Bamford on this site have sparked my interest.

Martin’s perspective is an interesting one.

I’m a man who in the last 10 years, have consistently been overweight (and every now and again i’m pretty sure I venture into the Obese category) in traditional BMI terms.

Although I’m fitter than some (I’m currently running two or three 5k – 10k runs a week…although that hasn’t always been the case!)  I know I’ve got a lot of work to do (If I tried a marathon today I would probably not only hit ‘the wall’ but collapse just before it at about 20k!) but I’m slowly doing quicker and longer distances.

I know this is because I eat too much and don’t exercise enough.

However on a cold winter day, when it’s easier to stay in and eat chocolate, the part of my brain which wants an immediate win gets it’s own way more often than it should. I also know this and it’s something I’m trying to work on!

Interestingly many of my private clients, all relatively financial successful in their own right, keep themselves in pretty good physical shape. This isn’t a surprise in itself.

However among the people I like, trust and respect (including a few of my clients as well as a few in our profession) there are plenty of people who would be on the heavier side of what is considered a healthy weight for their height.

This tells me that whilst many do get the appropriate mix to make a judgement on someones ability to delay gratification in one particular area (weight control) might not be an appropriate indication of how their ability to delay gratification either financially or whilst building their business.

As in many aspects of our lives the key factor is getting the balance right. For many (including me) that process isn’t immediate but an ongoing journey.

Which brings me onto Phil’s perspective. I agree with much of his conclusions. Unless we spend time thinking more deeply about the issues which impact our lives we are motivated by among other things avoidance of shame, a sense of social authority and make decisions based on what feels good now as opposed to what matters tomorrow (anyone who believes they behave otherwise is either lying or severely deluded)

However where I disagree is the picture Phil paints about the “bleak future of financial Gamification“.

If you’re reading the odds are you’re involved in a bunch of different games…

If you use a supermarket Clubcard you’re playing a game (rank up as many rewards as you possibly can), or ever played any form of competitive sport or ever taken and passed an exam you’re playing a game. 

If you use twitter you’re playing a game (number of ‘followers’ and ‘likes’ and ‘re-tweets’ provides social authority)

If you write for Adviser Lounge, like I do, or Martin does, or Phil does, you’re playing a game (again of the social authority variety).

I know this. Instinctively I’m sure you know it. I’m pretty sure Phil and Martin know it too. However I’ve got the freedom of choice to decide whether I’m getting enough satisfaction (either emotionally,financially or in social authority terms) to continue to play or stop any game I’m part of.

Also, in a world where we consistently playing many of us are also being ‘played’. Interestingly it’s not usually by individuals or firms who want to help us develop better financial or healthier habits but by companies who target many of the poorest in our society decreasing their ability to live even slightly more wealthier, happier and fitter lives (I’m thinking Pay Day Lenders, Online Gambling sites and fast food companies in particular).

So, if our intentions are to help people live happier, more healthier and more financially secure lives…Should we feel bad about gamification? Absolutely not!

Also I dread to think what “financial compulsion” looks like and prefer methods which ‘nudge’ us into better financial behaviour (this includes auto enrolment and gamification strategies to help people with making better decisions).

So, to conclude….

I believe that Martin’s is absolutely right to say the obesity is a huge issue, and this comes down to how people control their behaviour. However to imply that an individuals willpower can be switched on and off as well as making an assumption about the fact that lack of control in one area automatically means a lack of control in another is a dangerous jump.

The situation is that for many of us (including me) it’s far more complex than that.

and Phil is right on many points. But to assume that gamification is a bad thing misses the point….

Gamification still gives people a choice. They choose to participate or not.

The firms who encourage individuals to make ill informed financial decisions use it every day….surely it’s not unethical, or immoral, or wrong to have it in our “kitbag” too?


I’d rather live in a world where I’m playing a game I can choose to play or not (I choose to do this all the time anyway)….as opposed to being ‘forced’ into behaviour due to compulsion.

It’s like a choice between living in Las Vegas or Pyongyang, North Korea….

….I’d rather have the choice of somewhere else. But if there are only two options, I’d rather be in the one which gave me an option to play a game as opposed to forcing me to!

However I might be totally wrong and this might just be the prolonged rantings of a madman (I’ll let you be the judge)….what do you think?

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