Big Question: Is technology killing our ability to practice patience?

It seems we don't have to wait for anything anymore. Hate commercials? Zap through them with the DVR. Want that new book or song? Download it in about eleventy-two seconds. Is all this instant gratification killing our ability to wait?

Curiosity contributor Susan Sherwood examined the question of technology versus patience and took the time to answer it thoroughly.

Benjamin Franklin once said, “He that can have patience can have what he will.” But is patience really necessary? In today’s technological society, why wait? You can read the news, order a pizza, shop for a present, communicate with your cousin in a different country or get directions for a trip in a matter of seconds. Technology is improving all the time. Consider Moore’s Law (which is not actually a law but an astute prediction from Intel’s co-founder Gordon Moore). This “law” is commonly interpreted as meaning that the number of transistors (which control the flow of electrons) on a computer circuit doubles every 18 to 24 months, making components smaller and more powerful. This exponential increase has been occurring for decades and will likely continue for as long as consumers demand improvement, human ingenuity can maintain these advancements and the laws of physics permit such dramatic changes.

Do we need to worry about being patient? Maybe, because we start out struggling with it. In a classic look at delayed gratification during the 1960s and 1970s, Stanford researcher Dr. Walter Mischel conducted a series of experiments with preschoolers to see how long they would willingly put off receiving a treat. They could have a cookie or marshmallow whenever they wanted, but, if the children were patient for 15 minutes, their treat would be doubled. Fewer than one third of the youngsters were able to hold out for the full 15 minutes and double their snacking pleasure. The rest of the kids surrendered to their inner sweet tooth and ate the one treat before the time limit was up.

News flash: Preschoolers are impulsive and enjoy cookies. Is this really such a big deal? Quite possibly. In a 1990 follow-up study, Dr. Mischel and colleagues found that adolescents who had been the more patient preschoolers in the test were more intelligent, had more self-control under stress and had better concentration. They also had higher SAT scores. And an investigation 40 years after the original study discovered that the kids who had delayed gratification were less likely to be overweight adults.

So waiting is hard, and we live in a world where it’s often not necessary; technology is produced specifically to cut down on wait time. That can be a bad thing. In June 2012, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling that supported President Obama’s health care law. However, in an effort to get the results on air, both CNN and Fox News rushed the analysis and initially reported the opposite outcome. You like your news instant and around the clock? Or would you prefer it to be accurate?

On Wall Street, Lehman Brothers trained their stock traders to work as fast as technology would let them, making snap decisions and carrying them out immediately. How did that work for them? Right … they went bankrupt. Another cautionary tale: UNX, a technology trading company, moved its headquarters from California to New York so they could save milliseconds of processing time during trades. (How patient do you have to be to wait 30 milliseconds?) The company’s results declined until it slowed its computers down (still by milliseconds) and they started making money again.

Technology is reducing our wait, removing the need for patience. Sometimes, however, the results can range from embarrassing to devastating. As Isaac Newton once said, “If I have made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient attention than to any other talent.” And he was no slouch: He developed Newtonian physics, during the 17th and 18th centuries, when technology consisted of the sextant, the steam engine, the guillotine and the stethoscope. Slowing things down a bit might not be all bad.