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Your ‘marshmallow brain’ vs your ‘acorn brain’: Breaking the short-term thinking habit

Unthinkable: Acorn brain worries about pensions. Marshmallow brain thinks short-term

A tourist bus passes the unfinished basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. ‘I think we need to build the ecological cathedrals of the future, not the old-fashioned medieval kind,’ says writer Roman Krznaric. Photograph: Albert Llop/Anadolu Agency/Getty

There’s something noble about starting a project that you know you won’t live to see completed. The Sagrada Família in Barcelona is one that typically comes to mind – Antoni Gaudí spent 43 years working on it and less than a quarter of the cathedral had been finished when he died in 1926.

The Oxford English Dictionary also stands out. It took 70 years to create, by which time its main editor James Murray was 12 years in the grave.

At least the engineer Joseph Bazalgette lived to see the London sewers finished after 18 years, and British Labour MP Nye Bevan saw his Bill to establish the National Health Service come into law – even if he was gone from ministerial office within three years.

One of the most long-sighted policy decisions in the history of the Irish State was Donogh O’Malley commitment to free universal secondary education in September 1966. He died 18 months later, before the reform – that gave rise to the Celtic Tiger and much more besides – had come into effect.


Writer and academic Roman Krznaric celebrates some of these examples of long-term planning in his book The Good Ancestor. In a world of instant outrage, clickable commerce and mainly five-year electoral cycles, what we need is more "cathedral thinking", he argues.

U2 guitarist Edge was given a copy of Krznaric's manuscript by mutual friend Brian Eno and described it as "the book our children's children will thank us for reading". Packed with commonsense advice on how to develop an uncommon habit, it identifies six drivers of short-termism – tyranny of the clock, digital distraction, political presentism, speculative capitalism, global uncertainty and fixating on economic growth – and it proposes remedies for each.

These include designing institutions to resist vested interests and appointing a minister for future generations – something the Welsh government has already done – to represent people who haven’t yet been born.

Krznaric explains further as this week’s Unthinkable guest.

Does short-term thinking come more naturally to humans than long-term?

Roman Krznaric: “There’s a dominant narrative in society that short-term thinking is one of the things that defines us as human beings. There’s certainly some truth in that, in the sense that we are easily lured by immediate rewards and instant gratification. That’s why we keep clicking the ‘buy now’ button.

“These short-term drives are embedded in our neuroanatomy in what I call the ‘marshmallow brain’ [named after a psychology test on instant gratification] … but this is only part of who we are.

“We also have wired into us an ‘acorn brain’. This is the part that focuses on long-term thinking, planning and strategising. It lives in the frontal lobe.

“Compared to the marshmallow brain, which is about 80 million years old, the acorn brain is rather new, just two million years old. But it’s better developed in humans than most other creatures.

“The acorn brain is what enables us to save for our pensions, write song lists for our own funerals or plants seeds that will mature into trees long after we are dead.

“The problem is that we’re much more accustomed to using our short-term brains than our long-term brains, and our social, economic and political institutions are designed in ways that exacerbate the powers of the marshmallow brain – everything from apps that give us an instant dopamine hit to the short-termism built into electoral cycles.”

Is democracy part of the problem?

“I agree that democracy – as it is currently organised – is part of the problem. Our democratic institutions are subject to multiple short-term pressures, from the next election that lies on the horizon to the pressures of 24/7 media and corporate political funders who care more about their own near-term interests than the long-term interests of society.

“But it’s fascinating that there are so many experiments going on around the world that are extending the time horizons of democratic politics. In Japan, for instance, a movement called Future Design invites local residents to discuss and draw up plans for the towns and cities where they live.

“Half of them are told they are residents from the present day and the other half are given ceremonial robes to wear and told to imagine themselves as residents from the year 2060. It turns out the residents from 2060 systematically advocate far more transformative city plans from long-term healthcare investment to climate change action.

“Future design is now spreading from small towns to major cities like Kyoto and is even being used in Japan’s ministry of finance. It’s a kind of citizen’s assembly model – an approach well known in Ireland of course – which is a way of giving future generations a voice in local decision making.”

How effective would a minister for the future be?

“I certainly think that having political positions dedicated to the welfare of future generations could help us on the journey to becoming better ancestors in the political sphere. There are a couple of challenges though. First, ensuring that the minister would have sufficient powers. Second, who is to say that a minister for the future would necessarily represent the variety of interests in society in an effective way? Perhaps they would just get caught up in taking a narrow view of the future that suits their own party’s interests.

“That’s why the citizens’ assembly model is so important – to ensure that many different long-term issues get discussed and debated, which are relevant for people from different backgrounds, from the long-term impacts of climate change to racial injustice that gets passed down from generation to generation. The proposed UK future generations bill actually combines having a commissioner for future generations with an advisory citizens assembly panel. Sounds like a smart model to me.”

If you were to prioritise one cathedral project now what would it be?

“I think we need to build the ecological cathedrals of the future, not the old-fashioned medieval kind. And that ultimately means shifting from economies that are structurally addicted to fossil fuels and endless growth, to embracing new models that are about thriving in balance with the living world, and not overshooting dangerous planetary boundaries such as CO2 emissions and biodiversity loss.

"There are plenty of alternative models out there to choose from. Your President Michael D. Higgins recently gave a ringing endorsement to the 'doughnut of social and planetary boundaries' developed by the economist Kate Raworth. If we want to survive as a species for the long-term, we need to learn to live within the boundaries of the one planet we know that sustains life."

You mentioned vested interests being an obstacle to long-term thinking. How do you propose limiting the ever-growing power of social media companies to encourage and profit from short-term distraction?

“I wish I had a good answer to that! Ultimately, any company that is driven by the interests of its shareholders and investors who are intent in short-term gains will have difficulties with taking the long view, even if they have beautifully written mission statements that extol the virtues of sustainability and so on.

"People like Douglas Rushkoff have argued that the biggest social media companies are basically monopolies that should be broken up and become public utilities. Jaron Lanier suggests these companies should shift off the advertising revenue model to a subscription revenue model, which is not simply based on creating more and more instant clicks and swipes.

“Another approach, from a more internal perspective, is delinking CEO and middle-manager pay from short-term performance targets like profit and market share. Employee and customer ownership models can also help.

“I also have this idea to replace the ‘buy now’ button with a ‘buy later’ button. So when you visit your favourite online shopping emporium there would be a dropdown menu that offers you the options of buy now, buy in a week, buy in a month, buy in a year or borrow from a friend. And if you pick ‘buy in a year’ you’ll get an email 12 months down the line asking whether you still want that third yoga mat. It could create a long-term revolution in consumer behaviour.”

The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short-Term World by Roman Krznaric is published by Ebury Press