Long term or short term?
Long term or short term?

A four year old girl sits in a room on her own with a marshmallow in front of her. She can eat it any time she chooses. Or, she can wait five minutes. If she waits five minutes without eating the marshmallow she gets a second one, and can eat them both. If she can't wait, and eats the marshmallow now, that's her lot.

This was the basis of the famous 'marshmallow' experiment conducted at Stanford University in the USA in 1972. Researchers tracked the subsequent progress of the children involved in the experiment. They found that those who held their nerve and were able to ignore the marshmallow in the expectation of doubling their stock had significantly better health and educational outcomes in later life. In other words, long term thinking pays off better than short term thinking. You're better off with two marshmallows in five minutes than one marshmallow now; you're better off with good exam results in a year's time than a video game now.

The long term / short term division has relevance beyond personal choices. Arguably, too much dependence on short term thinking is a flaw inherent in democracy. As governments have to be re-elected at least once every five years, it is very difficult for them to think beyond a five year time frame. Taking decisions that may be unpopular now (not eating the marshmallow) is hard to do because you need to be popular at least once every five years to stay in office. And yet there are many issues - dealing with climate change is a strong example - where short term pain is necessary for long term gain.

How should you approach the choice between long term and short term in debating? In general, you are better off focusing on the long term impacts of a measure proposed in a motion, as there will simply be more of them, they will be longer lasting and will affect more stakeholders.

To take an example. The motion is This house would raise tax on petrol. If you are arguing for the proposition, a short term argument would be that this measure would deter people from driving, which would encourage them to walk or cycle, which would be better for their health. This is not in itself an invalid argument, but it is a lower level one, as the impacts will be quite small and short lived, and will only apply to drivers (and not all of them). Better to focus on the long term impact of the reduction in car use on slowing climate change; we will have to wait a lot longer for this, but it will ultimately bring much bigger and more universal benefits.

And if you're the opposition in this debate? Avoid focusing on short term harms from the measure, e.g. petrol station workers out of work, overcrowded buses etc. Instead accept the long term aim implicit in the motion, i.e. slowing climate change, but criticise the means. Rather than punishing motorists, forcing them out of their cars onto overcrowded or non-existent buses and trains, the answer is to invest in public transport to make it more widespread and cheaper, so that it is easier for people to use than cars. You will achieve the same long term benefit, but in a more sustainable way.

There are some times, and some motions, where short term thinking should take priority, simply because the issue is a very immediate one. To take a topical (in November 2022) issue: This house would boycott the World Cup in Qatar. This is an immediate issue with immediate consequences. While there might be some positive long term consequences of a boycott (a greater unwillingness for sporting bodies to allow countries with poor human rights records to use 'sportswashing' to improve their image) or a non-boycott (a change in attitudes towards gay rights in Qatar thanks to the presence of gay fans from around the world), the biggest impacts will be felt over the four weeks of the tournament while the whole world's attention is focused on Qatar, and it is appropriate to focus on those short term impacts.

Personally, I hate marshmallows. Far too sweet and squidgy. (Fortunately, the experimenters offered pretzels as an alternative.)