Short-term vs. Long-term Cultures – Can they be ranked qualitatively?

Psychology and behavioral economics (see Dan Ariely at Duke University, for instance) tell us that decisions based solely on intuition and hot states (that is, intense momentary stimuli) are often wrong and unsustainable in the long term. They are influenced or even manipulated by limbic processes (shock, fear, loathing, pity, joy).

Can we derive from this that present-oriented societies make worse decisions than long-term-oriented ones? That societies focused on the short term perpetuate a cycle of sub-optimal decision-making? Is there a multiplying effect from large numbers of people mentally captive in current, intense stimuli, and whose culture does not teach, expect or reward rational long-term thinking? Are these cultures prone to worse decisions in the long term?

On the one hand, if perceptions are mistakenly taken for (proven) truths, and used to make decisions, if cultures are “impatient” and always act “on the fly”, they tend to generate only short-term solutions (palliatives) and change their minds often and quickly following the next great impulse. Are, then, such societies more prone to waste, bad choices, material underdevelopment and mismanagement? Are they harder to govern? Are they conducive to a more authoritarian leadership style?

If instead of rational argumentation they prefer witty and intense appeals to emotions (based in the moment, not really relevant for long-term goals), if they find rational behavior boring, bland, too lengthy and do not reward it, this could mean that highly rational individuals with careful planning, patience and an eye for relevant detail, considerate and inclusive will not appeal to the majority and thus not make it very high up in the hierarchy. (Unless, of course, “opposites attract”).

Impatience wants slapdash solutions, clever quips, compelling limbic arguments. A truly inclusive and democratic leadership will seem to take too long and will appear fragmented and weak. Anyone appealing directly to the emotions (see media-induced hot states in Romanian politics, for instance) will have the advantage of circumventing cognitive processes, rational evaluation and won’t have to provide sustainable argumentation. And as neuromarketing advances, we become more and more exposed to this. What are the consequences for governance and public administration? (Or even for day-to-day consumer behavior and resource allocation?)

On the other hand, could we be dealing with a positive trade-off? Are present-oriented societies more free of constraints? By satisfying their members immediate needs, are they offering a greater degree of “happiness”, ease or flexibility? Are they more empathetic, helpful, kind, spontaneous, therefore more creative – more chaotic but also richer and more dynamic? Are they more superficial in terms of objective results but deeper in terms of relationships? Can we ever truly say one culture is better than another?

In November 2014, Romania elected a president of German origins, on a slogan of thoroughness, promising a new way of doing things – “like clockwork”. It will be interesting to watch if this was, too, a moment’s impulse or if we are witnessing a definite shift in Romanian culture.

Until then, stay healthy and knowledgeable, enjoy a peaceful holiday season and a Happy New Year!

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