February 14, 2007 3:14PM

Deferred Gratification and Income Inequality

The Economist reports on an interesting new study showing that members of a Bolivian tribe who understood the value of deferred gratification also experienced higher income gains:

One phenomenon that is almost unique to humans is deferred gratification—in other words, patient anticipation of a reward. Dr Reyes‐​Garcia and her colleagues therefore guessed that as the Tsimane’ became more enmeshed in modern society, the more patient of them would do better than the less. The Tsimane’s traditional subsistence economy depends on folk knowledge and learned skills that have quick pay‐​offs. Formal schooling does not pay off for years, but opens the door to bigger potential incomes. To test their idea, the researchers offered all 151 adults in two Tsimane’ villages a choice between receiving a small amount of money or food immediately, getting a larger amount if they were willing to wait a week, and getting a larger amount still in exchange for several months’ wait for payment. They found that the more education a villager had, the longer he was willing to delay gratification in return for a bigger reward. Five years later, Dr Reyes‐​Garcia and her colleagues came back again. They re‐​interviewed 100 of their volunteers (the other 51 were unavailable for one reason or another) and 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 effect was relatively small—the incomes of the patient had grown 1% a year faster than those of the impatient. Over a lifetime, though, that adds up to a significant amount of inequality. The patient, then, could take their place alongside the lucky, the smart and the violent at the top of society’s heap.

These results are similar to research in advanced societies. All other things equal, successful people tend to recognize the value of sacrificing today in order to enjoy more income/​consumption/​wealth in the future. But consider what this research implies for the current political debate about income inequality. Leftists are beating the drums for higher tax rates and more income redistribution, in part because they insist that rich people are either lucky or that their wealth is earned at the expense of the less fortunate (the fixed‐​pie fallacy). But if income differences are the result of individual choices, these arguments are less persuasive. Rather than seeking to punish success, honest leftists should focus their energies on figuring out how to create a culture of deferred gratification in poor communities.