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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Economics 101: Can we develop a more patient outlook in the Arabian Gulf?

Understanding the importance of long-term thinking is a cornerstone to personal and national development

The region's total billionaire wealth increased by 15 per cent to reach $165 billion in 2017. Photo: Getty
The region's total billionaire wealth increased by 15 per cent to reach $165 billion in 2017. Photo: Getty

In a wide range of economic and social domains, it is easy to see how being patient is advantageous: it helps you get better grades; a nicer job; appear more tolerant, and so on.

In the Arabian Gulf countries, despite the high levels of per capita income, there is a sense that people are yet to realise their full potential, with one reason being a relative lack of fiscal patience.

For example, the savings rate in the Gulf countries is very low and this contributes to low levels of private investment. By contrast, the ability of wider Asian region cultures to defer gratification, reflected in their high saving rates, is often cited as a reason for their economic success.

The problem for Gulf policymakers is twofold: is it even possible to manipulate an individual’s patience? And if so, how can one go about it?

A recent study by economists Sule Alan (University of Essex, UK) and Seda Ertac (Koc University, Turkey) entitled Fostering Patience in the Classroom, has yielded some promising results. The authors’ first step was composing an educational curriculum designed to develop patience in young children. Based on their own previous research, they conjectured that an important contributor to patience was the ability to concretely imagine future scenarios, and to think vividly about the choices available in the present.

For example, if a child is deciding whether to buy sweets today or save up for a bicycle tomorrow, then it is common for the temptation of immediate gratification from sweets to be too strong, especially if the sweets are in front of the child. To help a child to overcome this, they need to be able to think clearly about the enjoyment of owning the bicycle, and to compare it with the enjoyment of consuming the sweets immediately.

Prof Alan and Prof Ertac sensed that impatient children were ineffective at the imagination and comparison steps, and devised a series of exercises that help build the associated skills. They then selected a group of primary schools, and in a subset of these schools, they trained the teachers in this new curriculum; the remaining schools continued according to the conventional curriculum, acting as a benchmark for comparisons.

The researchers wanted to answer three questions: is it possible to make children behave more patiently? Would it apply across a variety of important decisions that relate to deferred gratification? And would the effects persist long after the children had left primary school and returned to conventional curriculums?

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The answers to all three questions were positive. The selected children exhibited higher levels of patience in a selection of diagnostic tests. Moreover, they were significantly less likely to receive a low “behaviour grade” on their official school records; failing to think through the consequences of one’s actions are usually a primary cause of disruptive behaviour. And crucially, these effects persisted almost three years after the start of the experiment, when the children had moved on to middle school.

Educators and policymakers in the Gulf should pay close attention to these findings as they may hold the key to highly effective educational reforms. When considering how to improve educational outcomes, policymakers have come to accept that expensive investments are necessary, such as hiring better quality teachers, decreasing class sizes, purchasing IT equipment, and so on. Prof Alan and Prof Ertac’s results suggest that low-cost modifications to the curriculum can yield positive returns not just in the educational domain, but also in all aspects of life.

From a scientific perspective, it is important to keep tracking the cohort of students in the study to see the effects over 10 years and beyond. Moreover, hopefully scholars and educational experts will try to replicate the results in other countries, possibly while introducing intelligent adjustments that yield even better outcomes. The Gulf countries should consider being at the forefront of such efforts.

Another important lesson from the study is the importance of research and development. When we think of technological advancement, we usually imagine huge, multimillion-dollar labs staffed by armies of scientists. This potentially ground-breaking research was essentially executed by two scholars. And while they acknowledge receiving financial support from multiple sources, it is highly unlikely that the budget approached what is typical from a modern, high-tech project. The reason is that intelligent scholars were given the institutional support necessary to try something novel.

These are circumstances that the Gulf countries need to work hard at creating, as the long-term benefits could be very large. We shouldn’t expect all studies to yield results that are as dramatic as those of Prof Alan and Prof Ertac. However, the unique nature of the Gulf economies and culture mean that there is a need for a lot of Gulf-specific research, and such research should be a priority.

Omar Al-Ubaydli @omareconomics is a researcher at Derasat, Bahrain.