Impulse Control

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Offer chimps two pieces of food, one big and one small, and they invariably pick the bigger piece. Change the rules so that to get the bigger piece they have to choose the smaller one and chimps simply can't do it. They lack the impulse control to compromise. They can't take disadvantage in order to gain advantage. They can't take the harder path to bigger prizes.

We humans are trailblazers of the harder path. We're good at climbing through valleys to get to higher peaks. Our capacity for impulse control opens bright new vistas for us collectively and individually. Think of how much innovation is borne of our ability to do the harder thing to get to the better thing.

Not that it's easy for any of us. It's hard to reign in our impulse to just lurch straight at our desires. It's also iffy since compromise doesn't always pay. "No pain, no gain" doesn't mean all pain yields gain. Delayed gratification is really delayed uncertain gratification.

When our impulse control fails us, we become uncompromising. But unlike chimps we can rationalize it as something more dignified than poor impulse control. We can call it steadfastness, and resoluteness, we can dress it up as an urgently unwavering principled response to some exulted imperative.

We have had a lot of that this election season, people so fed up with meanderingly compromised democracy, that they say, "Enough! From now on we're taking my route, the straight shot to my definition of success. No more compromise."


I hear it from my far left friends who join forces with Trump against 'Crooked Hillary'. And I hear it loud in the Trump camp's impatient clamoring lurch toward immediate gratification, trampling all over America's hallowed standards of decency, even those that Republicans once defended most vocally -respect for the presidential office, small government, consistency, family values, tradition itself.

They call it steadfast commitment to principle. To me it looks like poor impulse control.

With a Perspective, I'm Jeremy Sherman.

Jeremy Sherman is a teacher, writer and blogger.