The Perils of Low Time-Preference

Ayn Rand and the World She Made

Anne Heller’s new bio Ayn Rand and the World She Made comes out next month, but Amazon has already posted the first chapter, and it looks pretty interesting. If you think that after reading Barbara Branden and Chris Sciabarra there’s nothing new to learn about Rand’s early years, think again.

I was especially struck by this passage:

When Rand was five or so, she recalled, her mother came into the children’s playroom and found the floor littered with toys. She announced to Rand and Rand’s two-and-a-half-year-old sister, Natasha, that they would have to choose some of their toys to put away and some to keep and play with now; in a year, she told them, they could trade the toys they had kept for those they had put away.

Natasha held on to the toys she liked best, but Rand, imagining the pleasure she would get from having her favorite toys returned to her later, handed over her best-loved playthings, including a painted mechanical wind-up chicken she could describe vividly fifty years later.

When the time came to make the swap and Rand asked for her toys back, her mother looked amused, Rand recalled. Anna explained that she had given everything to an orphanage, on the premise that if her daughters had really wanted their toys they wouldn’t have relinquished them in the first place.

Yup, her mother couldn’t have done better if she was deliberately trying to create Ayn Rand.

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17 Responses to The Perils of Low Time-Preference

  1. Miko September 24, 2009 at 2:08 pm #

    Well yeah, but then the story is based on Rand’s recollection.

    • Roderick September 24, 2009 at 3:48 pm #

      Sure, but she seems — judging from those cases where an independent check is possible — to have had an extremely accurate and detailed memory of her childhood. (For example, she could describe in detail the illustrations from a favourite story she hadn’t read since childhood, or correct mistakes in Russian Orthodox prayers she’d heard recited in school when she heard them again decades later.)

      • Anon73 September 24, 2009 at 4:09 pm #

        I guess she got training in the ways of capitalism at a young age. :0

  2. John Q. Galt September 25, 2009 at 4:02 am #

    Ah, conscious playing with time preference at such a young age. Myself, I would take the long way home because it made jumping in the pool that much better. Leviathan and other grifters call it the “long game.”

    • Araglin September 25, 2009 at 11:32 am #


      From the description given, Rand’s time preference was not simply ‘low’ (especially for her age) but even ‘negative’ in that she was giving up for a year that which she already loved best now without having to be induced to do so with the promise of any interest…

      • Roderick September 25, 2009 at 1:13 pm #

        I don’t think it was negative. The preference was not simply for later as opposed to now. It was for a situation that gets better over a situation that gets worse.

        • JOR September 26, 2009 at 4:43 pm #

          I think the problem is there’s a temptation to think that time preference is something psychological in itself. Some Austrians have tried to get a lot of mileage out of doing just that, by positing low time preference as a cause of criminal behavior, arguing that certain (ahem) racial and sexual groups have naturally higher time preference, etc. When Austrians really go bad, you will almost always find that it’s because they’ve stopped doing praxeology and started doing armchair psychoanalysis. But properly speaking, it’s a praxeological concept, I’d think, not a psychological one. Someone who, say, saves up money to send their kids to college is is engaging in low time preference behavior. But he’s not thinking to himself, “Man, it’ll be so cool to spend that money later instead of sooner!” He’s thinking, “I want to put my kids through college.”

        • JOR September 26, 2009 at 4:55 pm #

          To clarify, I think that Rand was indeed engaging in low time preference behavior, and that the reason someone might see her time preference in this situation as negative is that they might mistake the psychological things going on in her head for her time preference.

        • JOR September 26, 2009 at 5:15 pm #

          Excuse me, by positing HIGH time preference as a cause of criminal behavior.

          *hangs head in shame*

      • John Q. Galt September 27, 2009 at 3:42 am #

        The interest was the future pleasure.

        • JOR September 28, 2009 at 5:09 am #

          Yeah, exactly. The low time preference is not her having this idea that she’ll have this great pleasure in the future if she gives up her favorite toys for a while; the low time preference is her deciding that that future pleasure outweighs having her favorite toys around right now, and acting on it.

  3. Jesse Walker September 25, 2009 at 9:21 am #

    That story is really sad.

    • RWW September 25, 2009 at 11:23 am #

      Yeah, it actually made me tear up to imagine the poor little girl.

  4. sadielou September 26, 2009 at 10:33 am #

    I think I’d like that book.

    That first chapter made me remember what a “strange” child I’d been in very much the same way. Reading a biography of Simone Weil gave me the same shock of recognition. The solitariness, the idealized, abstract, somewhat pompous inner life, the search for other people “like me” — Rand & Weil & me were basically identical little girls when we were about seven. And it’s odd that one turned out a capitalist radical, one turned out a socialist radical, and I turned out an absolutely ordinary; I wonder what does that to people.

  5. sadielou September 26, 2009 at 10:42 am #

    Oh, no. You clearly don’t remember how badly you panic when you lose things.

    Bit of a psychic broken window fallacy, I think.

  6. Neil Parille September 27, 2009 at 4:59 pm #

    I wonder what bothered Alisa the most: the dishonesty or the giving to the orphanage?

    • John Q. Galt September 29, 2009 at 9:29 am #

      Oh snap.

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