Would you prefer to receive 10 pounds in 5 days or 100 in 60 days? The answer you give depends on how much you discount the future. While there is much variation in how much people are willing to wait for a reward, many of us living in Western countries often think and plan about the future. Our future-oriented plans are vast: investment accounts, pension benefits, insurance schemes etc.
But how and when did we become so future-oriented?
In our study published in Plos One today, we argue that the answer may lie in our distant past, when we started storing food and moved away from a lifestyle where the hunted or gathered food was immediately shared and consumed. The idea is that: as an hunter-gatherer who does not store food, and is obliged to share food with others in the camp (as is the case in many hunter-gatherers who are mobile), there is no need to wait for higher rewards that you cannot store, and have to share with others anyway.
To test our idea we played what behavioral economists call- an economic game- with Mbendjele Pygmy hunter-gatherers and their farmer neighbors in Congo-Brazzaville. This game is very simple: you just get to choose from receiving 1 stock cube (a highly valued food ingredient both by hunter-gatherers and farmers) today or 5 stock cubes tomorrow. If you chose the former option, I give you a stock cube immediately. Otherwise, I give you 5 cubes the next day.
Before I tell you what we have found, let me tell you the differences between the groups we played the game with. A couple of Pygmy camps that we visited were located by the forest, further away from a logging town and participants in these camps were mainly living by hunting and gathering.
We also visited a Pygmy camp which was located in the logging town where Pygmies often work for the farmers or the logging company and buy food from the local market.
We found that Mbendjele who were residing at the logging town and became more sedentary and more market integrated chose the tomorrow option more often than the Mbendjele living further away from the town. The farmers, like the Mbendjele living in the town, also preferred the tomorrow option much more often than the Mbendjele living by the forest.
If these results are replicable, then it is very likely that humans have become more future-oriented when farming and food storage systems emerged, which changed the social structure in a way that brought about big sedentary populations, social hierarchies and inequalities.