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Want more patience? Specifically focus on the future rewards

A new study by University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) researchers reveals that simply changing the order in which information is presented can dramatically influence our decisions. When it comes to choices between present and future rewards, whether we see the time delay or the greater reward first can sway us toward either patience or impulsivity.

We all make countless choices every day – from the moment we wake up to the moment we fall asleep. Some choices are easy, but others, particularly those involving delayed gratification, can be tough.

Do I hit snooze or get up for a morning workout? Snack on an apple or a bag of chips? Should I save money or splurge on that new outfit? Turns out, how those choices are presented to us might play a much bigger role than we realize.

Choosing the reward: Patience vs impulse

To get a deeper look into how people make these choices, the researchers didn’t just record the final decision. They also carefully tracked how participants moved their computer mouse on the screen. This might seem unrelated, but this clever tactic gave amazing insights:

  • What did they consider first? Whether someone’s mouse cursor immediately went toward the larger reward ($60) or towards the time delay (30 days) showed researchers what the participant prioritized at the start of their decision.
  • The journey of thought: Even if a participant ultimately picked the $40, if their mouse initially hovered over the $60, this indicated they did consider the larger reward before choosing the sooner payout.

Would you believe the journey of your mouse across the screen could tell the story of how your brain makes choices? In this study, it did.

The path a mouse took told researchers a surprising amount:

  • Lingering over the larger reward: A mouse hesitating near the bigger payout indicated an internal struggle, even if the faster option was ultimately chosen.
  • Straight shot vs. wandering path: This showed whether a participant’s mind was immediately made up, or if they were weighing their options.

Time pressure in patience for reward

The researchers added another twist to their experiment: manipulating how much time participants had to make their decision. One might assume that more time would allow people to think carefully and always lead to better, more patient choices. However, the results were quite unexpected.

  • The pressure of a deadline: When given only two seconds to choose, a surprising 65% of participants opted for the “larger later” reward, showcasing a higher level of patience.
  • Unlimited time, less patience: With unlimited time at their disposal, only 59% of participants showed patience and chose the “larger later” payout.
  • A forced pause backfires: When participants were forced to wait 10 seconds before they could even make a decision, their patience decreased. Only 54% chose the “larger later” option in this scenario.

These findings suggest that time pressure doesn’t always lead to impulsivity. In fact, a quick decision deadline might force some people to focus on the big picture (the larger reward), resulting in more patient choices.

Why the difference? The study’s lead author, Ian Krajbich, explained: “If you’re somebody who focuses on the rewards first, time pressure accentuates that and makes you more patient. And if you’re a little impatient by nature and focus on delays first, time pressure magnifies that impatience.”

Hack your choices

The results of this study hint at a fascinating possibility: Could we actively influence our own decision-making for the better? Researchers believe the answer is yes. By carefully controlling how choices are presented to us, we might be able to subtly shift our behavior toward wiser, more beneficial options.

The key lies in strategic presentation. The study found that people exhibited more patience when they were shown the potential rewards before the time delay involved. This implies that highlighting the long-term benefits of a choice at the outset could help us overcome the pull of immediate temptations.

People were more patient when they saw rewards before delays. This means presenting the long-term benefits upfront may help you resist temptation.

Real-life applications

The insights gained from this study go far beyond choosing between a few extra dollars now or later. They illustrate the powerful influence presentation has over our ability to prioritize long-term goals over instant gratification – a struggle many of us know all too well.

Think of all the areas in life where success hinges on delayed gratification:

  • Healthier eating: Resisting the lure of junk food in favor of long-term health and vitality is tough. This study suggests that emphasizing the future benefits of feeling energized and fit could make those healthy choices more compelling than focusing on the immediate sacrifice of tasty treats.
  • Exercise: When immediate exhaustion looms larger than future fitness levels, motivation dwindles. Shifting focus to the increased energy and strength gained through regular exercise could make that workout feel more achievable.
  • Saving Money: Short-term sacrifices feel painful. But vividly imagining a financially secure retirement or an exciting future purchase could make saving feel more rewarding than immediate spending.

This research doesn’t offer a magic solution to self-control problems. However, it does highlight how even small changes in presentation can tip the scales in our minds.

By understanding the subtle triggers that influence our choices, we might be able to stack the deck in favor of the decisions that truly benefit our future selves.

“You want to emphasize those future large rewards and try to deemphasize how long it’s going to take,” said Krajbich. “Try to have the reward information come first.”

The study is published in Nature Communications.


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