Dostoevsky believed the Russian national character contained a flaw that would keep his country from ever melding successfully with Europe, a flaw that came out most prominently at the gambling tables. "Roulette is simply made for Russians," one of Dostoevsky's characters declares in The Gambler, explaining that Russians are suckers for schemes "allowing one to get rich suddenly in two hours, and without work." The same character proclaims, nevertheless, "I would much rather spend my whole life in a Kirghiz nomad's tent . . . than worship the German idol," that is, "the German method of saving money by honest work."
This passage from The Gambler has become a textbook example used to illustrate a principle of economics: the shorter the "time horizon" of a society, the more likely that society will fail to progress economically. The Swiss, the Germans, and the Japanese have succeeded spectacularly by setting aside savings, thus creating a pool of capital that can be used for future generations. Short-sighted societies spend all their capital at once, leaving nothing for the future.
Behavioral scientists are learning that a willingness to "defer gratification" can foretell success for individuals as well as societies. A psychologist presents a choice to four-year-old children. You can have one marshmallow now, he tells them; or, if you're willing to wait while I run an errand, you can have two marshmallows on my return. He then leaves the children in a room, with the single marshmallow enticingly displayed before each child.
It takes agonizing discipline for a four-year-old to turn down a marshmallow. Some cover their eyes, some sing to themselves, and many of them simply give in to temptation and settle for the one marshmallow. ...1
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