Patience 101: Just Wait Until You Hear This

CNN has reported that Trina Thompson, age 27, is suing her alma mater, Monroe College (New York), for not being sufficiently helpful in supporting her efforts to find a job since her graduation this past April.  Headlines describing the suit sum it up as follows: “Alumna Sues College Because She Can’t Find a Job.”

Recently, for personal reasons, I have become very interested in what social sciences might have to say about the personal quality we call patience.  A perfectly good definition of patience might be, “an ability or willingness to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with delay,” but what does that really mean in cultural terms?1

Ms Thompson completed her degree in April, and felt that four months should have been plenty of time for a gal with an information technology major, as well as a “2.7 grade-point average and a solid attendance record” to find a job.  Apparently, patience was not her minor.

As I searched (lightly) for some cross-cultural insights to patience, I found that while anthropologists had approached the topic in their usual eclectic manner, another social science , economics, happens to be quite curious about the ins and out of this virtue.  It turns out, not entirely surprisingly, that the costs and benefits of short term versus long term investments, and the psychology & culture of risk management (or lack of management) are of much interest to economists.

And when you cross anthropology and economics…. well, consider this:  Dr. Victoria Reyes-Garcia, of the Autonomous University of Barcelona and her colleagues hypothesized that one of the features of complex, contemporary Western-style culture is that increased patience is rewarded economically, or as The Economist (2/7/07) reported it, they “guessed that as the [the subjects] became more enmeshed in modern society, the more patient of them would do better than the less.”

They began by setting up a situation that mandated this reward structure, i.e., Reyes-Garcia offered various Amerindian villagers a small reward of food/money if they took it immediately, a bigger one if they were willing to wait a week or so, and a REALLY big pay-off if the subject was willing to wait several months.  In this initial experiment, the researchers found that there was a correlation between the length of time people were willing to wait for a reward and the amount of education they had had (no comment on methodology).  Those who had attended the missionary-run elementary school were significantly more likely to opt for the delayed gratification option that offered the ultimately greater pay-off.

Five years later, Dr. Reyes-Garcia and her colleagues returned to interview the participants regarding their current financial situations.  They found that “those who had shown most patience in the original experiment had also seen their incomes increase more than those of their less patient counterparts.”  The more educated, and therefore more patient (Were they patient before they met the missionaries? Did they learn deferred gratification in school? Are people who are really into waiting for heaven more patient, more Western, more educated?  The mind boggles with questions…), had seen their incomes rise on average 1% more than those who had taken the  bird in the hand instead of the two in the bush.  As the authors point out, if that growth could be sustained, over a lifetime, those people  just might become a bit wealthier than their neighbors.

Education itself, of course, is a form of delayed gratification.  It’s a beautiful day out, but I go to geometry class instead of the beach in the hopes that it will pay off for me in the long term.  To return to Ms Thompson’s situation mentioned above, perhaps she is guilty of learning the lesson of education = patience = pay-off too well.  She is demanding that the system ante up.  As she explained in her justification for suing, “It doesn’t make any sense: They went to school for four years, and then they come out working at McDonald’s and Payless. That’s not what they planned.”

Maybe she should try going to grad school…


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