In the late 1960s, Stanford Professor Walter Mischel conducted a series of experiments with children involving rewards in form of sweets. Children were given the option of either a small immediate reward or a larger reward if they waited for a defined period of ca. 15 minutes. Follow up studies showed that children who waited for the larger rewards tended to have better overall life outcomes as grownups. Whilst these ‘Stanford Marshmallow Experiments’ are now famous and often associated with videos of cute children struggling to exert self-control, the underlying issue of short-term thinking is a phenomenon that is neither limited to children nor to marshmallows.
Short term thinking, or short-termism, describes the tendency of humans and institutions to value short-term gains disproportionally higher than long term benefits and is increasingly recognized as one of the most fundamental challenges to human progress. Short-termism hinders our ability to think, plan and act for the long run and it can lead to irrational and counterproductive decisions. Examples include the failure of governments to effectively act on climate change, corporate executives to sufficiently invest in R&D and individuals to save for their retirement.
Short-termism undermines corporate performance, economic growth and prosperity –, contributes to the accelerated destruction of our ecosystem, adds to intergenerational injustices , , inhibits effective governance  and negatively affects human wellbeing . And while short-termism is not new, it is getting worse, especially in the financial  and corporate  world, where the phenomenon is sometimes referred to as quarterly capitalism.
Why do we fail to act for the long-run, why is short-termism such a problem, and what can we do about it?
Short-termism is a problem of intertemporal choice
Many important economic, environmental, political and personal decisions require the decision maker to carefully balance short-term results with long term outcomes. The decision maker cannot only consider the now, but must also consider the future. To do this effectively, he must solve what is known as an “intertemporal choice problem”. An example of an intertemporal choice problem in the corporate setting could be a company that must decide between the exploitation of a current product line or investment in a new technology. Exploiting the current product line leads to greater profits in the short-term, investing in new technology provides greater profits in the long term. Unfortunately, finding the right balance is challenging.
What is the best course of action considering both the short term and the long run? That is the essence of intertemporal choice.
Take the famous example of Kodak, a company that did not manage to strike the right balance between exploiting its photography line of current products (short term benefits) and investing into innovative digital photography (long term benefits). Digital photography required a sustained initial investment with negative net return for Kodak compared to high positive net return for photographic film based products (Figure 1). But after a certain point in time t, the net return of digital photography would have greatly surpassed that of the now declining photographic film business. The executive board of Kodak failed to transform Kodak’s value proposition fast enough, and in 2012 the pioneer of photography had to file for bankruptcy. Students of innovation will of course notice the Kodak example of an intertemporal choice problem is in fact also an example of the innovator’s dilemma .
Figure 1: An Intertemporal Choice Problem
Another example of an inadequately solved intertemporal choice problem (and of the tragedy of the commons) was the promotion of unsustainable private investment in cod fishing in Canada during 1980s, which nearly drove the cod fish population to extinction and resulted in the loss of 40.000 jobs. Had the private companies taken a long-term approach, they would have generated significantly higher returns over a quasi-indefinite period.
Short-termism is systemic and creates powerful feedback loops
Short-termism is not limited to the corporate sector, where its negative consequences for company performance have been well documented , . Unfortunately, short-termism is deeply entrenched in all layers of society, including the government, the finance sector, the media, research institutions, our culture and individuals (Figure 2). Short-termism is systemic, and it is impossible to identify a single actor as responsible for short-termism.
Short-termism is systemic, and no single sector, organization or institution is responsible.
For example, politicians are held hostage to 2-5 year electoral cycles and forced to focus on short term policies over long term reform that would endanger their reelection . Citizens vote in favor of policies that create short-term economic stimuli and against policies that secure a sustainable future for their children. Financial institutions invest in and sell financial products that threaten the foundations of the financial system they depend on. Individuals spend money on credit cards and undervalue the importance of retirement savings .
Figure 2: An incomplete short-term thinking stakeholder landscape
In addition to the widespread occurrence of short-termism in our society, the interaction of institutions and individuals creates powerful feedback loops and can contribute to a self-reinforcing nature of short-termism (Figure 3). For example, short-term thinking individuals are affecting the decision-making processes of the institutions they work in, which is in turn reinforced by the institution’s culture, organizational processes and incentive structures. Institutions are influencing other institutions, further reinforcing short-termism on the institutional level. Individual and institutional level short termism contributes to short-term tendencies in the whole society, i.e. the economy, culture and political climate, which in turn affects individuals and institutions, completing the feedback loop.
Figure 3: Macro-model of short-term thinking feedback loops
One of the reasons short-termism is so widespread in our society is that it is difficult to effectively solve intertemporal choice problems and commit to long-term oriented action. This is true for many optimization problems, but there are specific and unique barriers to optimal inter-temporal choice. To understand these barriers, we need to start by taking a closer look at the human brain.
Intertemporal choice optimization is difficult as it is, but made even harder due to four fundamental barriers to long term decision making
Optimal intertemporal choice requires a balance of our two selves
The basis for the human ability to think and act for the long run, in other words to be patient and exert self-control, is of a neurological nature. This has recently been indicated by using brain imaging technology, suggesting that the brain’s pre-frontal cortex is the home for the human ability of self-control .
The human neo-cortex is the most developed in the animal kingdom and uniquely enables us to think and plan for the long-term. This ability was the prerequisite for many important human evolutionary developments e.g. of our current social, economic and political systems. For example, long-term thinking (or patience) is the requirement for savings by households which in turn finances investments into the economy, and savings by firms are financing R&D and drive future output .
Sadly, the human brain has not evolved fast enough to allow humans to continually make optimized intertemporal choices in the complex and rapidly evolving modern era, and we often fail to adequately consider long term consequences of our actions. Why is that?
Using the System 1 and System 2 thinking terminology proposed by Kahneman , we can partially explain our short-term thinking tendencies by understanding that effective long term decision making is predominantly based on System 2 thinking, i.e. logical, deliberative decision making . System 2 thinking is more resource intensive for humans than fast, instinctive System 1 thinking and therefore often avoided, which makes it so hard to think for the long-run.
The two selves model, which proposes that all people have both patient (long-term thinking) and impatient (short-term thinking) components , is well suited to illustrate this dilemma. Optimal intertemporal choice represents a balance between our two selves: the patient planner and the impatient doer (Figure 4), and is very hard to achieve.
Figure 4: A balance that is hard to achieve
Even when employing System 2 decision making, we are subjected to a wide range of cognitive biases. Some of these biases negatively influence our ability to think and act for the long term. For example, the hyperbolic discounting bias, or our tendency to devalue future benefits much more than it would be rational , contributes significantly to the lack of urgency with which important issues, such as environmental degradation, are addressed. Other biases, such as loss aversion , status quo bias, and confirmation bias similarly reinforce our short-term tendencies (Figure 5).
Figure 5: Some of the cognitive biases contributing to short term thinking
Asymmetries between costs and benefits invite biases against long-term actions
A further barrier to long-term decision making and action relates to a common asymmetry in the cost benefit analysis of many long-term decisions.
Long-term thinking often requires resource intense action in the short term, for example in the form of a significant amount of investment capital for a corporate innovation initiative. This represents a practical hurdle to many initiatives aimed at the long-run.
At the same time, long-term decision making requires the decision maker to predict the future result of a present action or decision, for example in 5 or 10 years after an R&D project has been started. This is very difficult and often impossible, especially in complex, interconnected systems, such as the economy.
The resource insensitivity of long term decisions and actions, the uncertain and delayed nature of the desired outcomes, and powerful behavioral biases against this asymmetry make long-term decision making very difficult and are the reason that short-termism is systemic in our society and entrenched in its institutions and their organizational processes (Figure 6).
Figure 6: Principal barriers to long-term thinking
Solutions to short-termism
Due to the systemic nature of the barriers to long-term thinking and action, no one-size-fits-all solution will be sufficient. Instead, a multidisciplinary approach consisting of information, advocacy, regulatory and institutional reform as well as the development of tailored decision making tools based on e.g. behavioral- and decision science for all stakeholders is required (Figure 7).
Figure 7: An incomplete overview of solutions to short-termism
Each of the individual solutions needs to be adapted to the specific stakeholder, location and context and continually reviewed and updated to remain relevant.
The role of the Long Run Institute
The inability of individuals and institutions to effectively plan and act for the long run is causing enormous damage to the economy, environment and society. Luckily, with the increasing awareness of this challenge, the issue of short-termism is starting to gain attention from initiatives by organizations including the Aspen Institute , the Forum for the Future  and the McKinsey Global Institute . The first corporations are also beginning to tackle the issue through corporate reform. Unilever, for example, has stopped giving quarterly earning guides under its CEO Polman, and increased its focus on a corporate strategy for the long term .
However, the fight against short-termism in our society represents a challenge of such enormous proportions that we not only require continuing investment into ongoing initiatives, but also additional and innovative approaches to tackling the problem. After all, the re-orientation of our corporations, governments and lifestyles to a long-term focus requires a fundamental shift in the way we think about and make decisions.
It is for these reasons that we have founded the Long Run Institute (LRI). We are a team of professionals and academics with a passion for science-based decision optimization for the long-run. Our vision is to contribute to a shift away from short-termism towards balanced intertemporal decision making, thereby creating long-term value for the economy, the environment and society. The LRI focusses on three key areas:
We analyze the barriers to long-term decision-making across relevant stakeholders and identify and develop specific best practices and solutions
We develop tailored and easy to use decision-making tools for improved inter-temporal choice, drawing on research in the areas of behavior science, decision science and computational decision making (e.g. Agent Based Modelling)
We bring together managers, investors and policy makers to raise awareness about the issue of short-termism and facilitate an open dialogue and cross-sector collaboration
By providing the scientific tools, the relevant research as well as a dynamic forum for exchange, we hope to create the foundations to bridge the gap between Thinking and Doing for the future. To learn more about our approach or to get involved, please do get in touch or consider to contribute to the LRI. We have taken our first steps on a challenging journey - and we need your help.
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