But I Don’t Want to Wait!

My two sons, 18 months apart, receive generous birthday gift cards from their doting grandparents every year.

For my older son, running to spend his newly acquired cash at the Lego store became, over the years, a predictable rite of passage. He could barely call himself a year older without a shiny new Lego set to assemble and proudly display on his bedroom shelf.

My younger son also would run to the Lego store to survey all the sets, but after much inspection and deliberation, would leave empty handed. Instead, every year, he would decide to wait so that he could save up–collecting his allowance and other cash gifts given over the holidays and special occasions–so that he could buy the deluxe, mega-sized sets which contained many unique pieces.

This would inevitably frustrate his older brother. “Wow, I would have rather had that bigger set, too! Next year, I am going to save up, too.”

Psychologists have long studied the connection between self control, patience, and delaying gratification on one’s ultimate improved success in life. And while my sons’ individual success stories have yet to be determined, it still raises the question of what regulates our desire for immediate gratification? Could it be that some people are simply more impulsive by nature? Or are there some underlying decision mechanisms at play for those who would rather get something in the present than wait longer for something better?

Decision Science research provides insight on patience, self control, and decisions that have consequences that emerge over time. They refer to these as Inter-temporal choices, including what food we eat while attempting to diet, what we purchase when trying to save money, to more life-altering decisions such as education, career, or marriage.

Two behavioral science theories are often put forth to explain peoples’ inter-temporal choices. One, based on economics’ Discounted Utility Model, is hyperbolic discounting, which proposes that rewards actually decay at a more rapid rate in the short run than in the long run. So a hyperbolic discounter is more impatient when making short-run tradeoffs than when making long-run tradeoffs. This would explain how people can easily and consistently deposit funds into their savings accounts but also run up debt on their credit cards. The short-run tradeoff of resisting credit card spending requires more patience than setting aside money for future savings.

The second theory, also based on the Discounted Utility Model, describes people’s choices as being dynamically inconsistent. This means that we find it difficult to wait for a delayed reward when an immediately gratifying alternative is available. Accessibility and temptation act as powerful forces that have us ‘change our minds’ in the moment about what it is we truly want long term, and so we experience preference reversals. This is why my older son can promise himself to save up for the larger Lego set each and every birthday only to cave in and purchase something once he sees it in the store.

So are we all doomed to a life constructed on impatient and impulsive decisions?

My younger son’s patience and self control demonstrates that there are indeed those blessed individuals who can resist short-term rewards for greater ones in the future. But for the rest of us mere mortals, the challenge is very real. In fact, Neuroscience research on inter-temporal choice indicates that our Mesolimbic pathway is involved in choices with an immediate outcome. But thankfully, humans have the capacity, enabled by our prefrontal cortex, to make decisions that are rational and take much longer spans of time, and this is where Decision Science offers some helpful tools.

First, we can establish what a decision into the future looks like, and then resist short-run temptations by simply avoiding them. This can be done by setting up automatic defaults. For example, a common money-saving default would be to set up a pre-arranged automatic deposit into a savings account before any discretionary spending is made. Another tool would be to “feed the monster,” but only by a bit. So, for example, satisfy the mesa-limbic system by allowing for only a small reward, while still focusing on our long term goals. This would allow, for example, for a small treat per day of dieting while still controlling calorie count for a long-term weight loss goal.

I suggested to my son two options to help him reach his goal of getting the better Lego set. In one scenario, he simply does not visit the Lego store until he has accumulated enough funds to purchase the larger set, and in this way averts the overwhelming temptation to purchase a smaller one. The second option would allow him to enter the store, but only to buy a very small item, perhaps a figure from the set, and in this way he can “feed the monster” but still stick to his goal. He chose option two and was very satisfied to be able to walk away with something and still have the self control to work towards his ultimate goal.

Gaining insight into our decision-making processes and knowing how to adapt gives us a sense of empowerment which is critical when temptation presents itself and we find ourselves in need of greater patience and self control so as to delay gratification. Accomplishment in this area of decision-making can, in itself, make each of us a success story.

Pearl Gross

Pearl Gross is a Professional Development Consultant who specializes in Decision Coaching. She earned her Masters degree in Behavioral and Decision Science from the University of Pennsylvania. She can be reached here.

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