Patient capital

Your parents were right. Patience is a virtue.

The Economist
8 February 2007
By Kurt Kleiner

IN MODERN economies, inequality is a fact of life. But disparities of income are a relatively recent phenomenon. For most of the species's existence, humans lived in small foraging bands that had little material surplus and therefore enjoyed a relatively egalitarian existence. The invention of agriculture, which generates a surplus that can be stored and also gives value to land, permitted this to change. But permission is not prescription. Exactly why some people were able to accumulate more than others has been something of an anthropological mystery. The archaeological record is little help, but the main hypotheses have been luck, intelligence and aggression. These all, of course, play their part, but now a fourth phenomenon has been added to the list: patience.

Writing in Evolution and Human Behaviour Victoria Reyes-Garcia, of the Autonomous University of Barcelona, and her colleagues describe a study they carried out on the Tsimane', a group of Amerindians who live in Bolivia's slice of the Amazonian rainforest. Until recently, the Tsimane' were almost entirely cut off from the rest of Bolivian society. They were not quite hunter-gatherers—besides hunting and foraging, they also practised slash-and-burn agriculture—but they did live in self-sufficient villages, and there was little disparity of income between villagers.

In the 1970s missionaries started running elementary schools in Tsimane' villages, and the best students have had the chance to continue their education in a nearby town. Those who do well can find jobs as village teachers, or work for government or development organisations. Even those who manage only a few years' schooling are better placed than their confrères to work for cattle ranchers and logging companies. As a result, income inequality in Tsimane' society is as high as that in Britain (although overall wealth is obviously much lower). Dr Reyes-Garcia wanted to find out what determines who wins and who loses.

One phenomenon that is almost unique to humans is deferred gratification—in other words, patient anticipation of a reward. Dr Reyes-Garcia and her colleagues therefore guessed that as the Tsimane' became more enmeshed in modern society, the more patient of them would do better than the less. The Tsimane's traditional subsistence economy depends on folk knowledge and learned skills that have quick pay-offs. Formal schooling does not pay off for years, but opens the door to bigger potential incomes.

To test their idea, the researchers offered all 151 adults in two Tsimane' villages a choice between receiving a small amount of money or food immediately, getting a larger amount if they were willing to wait a week, and getting a larger amount still in exchange for several months' wait for payment. They found that the more education a villager had, the longer he was willing to delay gratification in return for a bigger reward.

Five years later, Dr Reyes-Garcia and her colleagues came back again. They re-interviewed 100 of their volunteers (the other 51 were unavailable for one reason or another) and found that those who had shown most patience in the original experiment had also seen their incomes increase more than those of their less patient counterparts. The effect was relatively small—the incomes of the patient had grown 1% a year faster than those of the impatient. Over a lifetime, though, that adds up to a significant amount of inequality. The patient, then, could take their place alongside the lucky, the smart and the violent at the top of society's heap.