Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Archive for October 12th, 2010

Immediate Gratification

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on October 12, 2010

    Leroy, twenty-two, unemployed, living at home,  stole money from his father; not much money, “six dollars for cigarettes,” Leroy says.  His father, Roger,  says, “I am so confused. Why does this boy not get a job so he can pay me back the money he owes me and then he will be able to move out?” “Thinking long-term is different from thinking short-term,” I say, knowing that Roger understands this, but sometimes the obvious needs to be stated. Many parents, like Roger, have carefully planned their lives with delayed gratification in mind. They think about what schools their children should attend; they save for retirement. They buy a house and slowly pay down a mortgage. Then, they are caught up short by their adult children who want things instantly.I explain to Roger, but as I speak I realize I am not explaining, I am merely stating what he already knows: the ability of the mind to delay gratification is a sign of maturity. Not everyone matures. “What can I do to help him?” Roger asks with kindness and frustration in his tone. “You need to have clear rules with clear consequences for breaking the rules,” I say firmly. “This is not an easy situation, ” I add to remind him that although Roger’s job seems straight-forward to me, I recognize that it is not emotionally simple to carry out.

    The New England Journal of Medicine did a careful study demonstrating that if you offer to pay people to stop smoking, then most people will stop smoking. The immediate gratification of money is more of a carrot than the delayed gratification of better health. Going further, I would venture to say that our economy is in trouble, at least in part, because financial wizards have taken advantage of people who want the immediate gratification of a home, without thinking of the delayed consequences of foreclosure.

    Understanding the human mind, understanding the vulnerability of those who only think short-term, can be a useful framework for working with some people, who looking from the outside, are throwing stones in their own path.  Leroy says he wanted cigarettes so he took money out of Roger’s wallet. If I take Leroy’s explanation at face value, then I understand Leroy to be acting like a much younger child who wants what he wants when he wants it. Leroy is not thinking about consequences; Roger could make him move out.  Further, where is Leroy’s superego, the part of his personality which says that stealing is morally and ethically wrong? His superego might be undeveloped or it might be ignored. Either way, Leroy needs help understanding his conscious and unconscious motivation for his antisocial behavior. At the same time, Roger needs to set firm limits, with clear consequences. Roger needs to provide Leroy an external superego, since Leroy’s  internal superego is not functioning well. The superego reminds the ego that delayed gratification make sense, sometimes. Hopefully, Leroy will come to understand this.

Posted in Musings | 3 Comments »

%d bloggers like this: