Putting the future on sale: The economics of instant gratification

We humans have all sorts of mental tricks for convincing ourselves that the time to resist temptation is tomorrow and so we of the gigantic prefrontal cortices find ourselves giving in again and again to immediate gratification.

Many of our problems with temptation and procrastination come back to one uniquely human problem; how we think about the future. This trait can get our present selves into trouble. The problem is that we cannot see the future clearly enough.

When people deprive themselves of what they really want for the fleeting satisfaction of a quick fix; economists refer to this as “delay discounting”. The longer you have to wait for a reward, the less it is worth to you; even small delays can dramatically lower the perceived value.

In a research experiment with college students, they were given the choice of having two sweets now or six sweets in two minutes. The majority of them (80%) chose to have the sweets immediately i.e. two sweets rendering the six sweets worth less. The value of each sweet shrank as it became more distant.

Delay discounting explains not just why some college kids took two sweets instead of six, but why we choose immediate satisfaction at the cost of future happiness. We take what we want when we want it (now) and we put off until tomorrow whatever we don’t want to face today.

The students were not bad at arithmetic; they were blinded by the “promise of reward”, which behavioural economists call “bounded rationality”; we are rational until we are not. We will be perfectly rational when everything is in theory, but when the temptation is real, the brain shifts into reward seeking mode to make sure we don’t miss out. This type of reversal is behind most failures of self-control. We all prefer the short term, immediate reward when it is right there, staring us in the face and the want becomes overwhelming. This leads to “bounded willpower”, which means we have self-control until we need it.

One reason we are so susceptible to immediate gratification is that our brains’ reward system did not evolve to respond to future rewards. Food was the reward system’s original target, which is why humans are still exceptionally responsive to the smell or sight of anything delicious. When dopamine was first perfecting its effects on the human brain, a reward which was far off, whether by 60 miles or 60 days was irrelevant to daily survival. The system we needed was the one that ensured we snapped up rewards when they were available. At most, we needed the motivation to pursue a near reward like fruit you had to climb a tree for or cross a river to get your hungry hands on; this is our primal survival mechanism in action.

When our modern selves contemplate immediate versus future rewards, the brain processes these two options very differently. The immediate reward triggers the older, more primitive reward system and its dopamine induced desire in contrast to future rewards that don’t interest this reward system so much; their value is encoded by the more recently evolved prefrontal cortex.

To delay gratification, the prefrontal cortex has to cool off the promise of reward. It’s not an impossible feat; after all, that’s what the prefrontal cortex is there for.

Although it is not easy, the good news is, temptation has a narrow window of opportunity. To really overwhelm our prefrontal cortex, the reward must be available now and for maximum effect, you need to see it. As soon as there is any distance between you and the temptation, the balance of power shifts back to the brain’s system of self-control.

Take for example, the students whose self-control collapsed at the sight of two sweets. In another version of the study, experimenters asked them to make the choice without putting the rewards on the table. This time, they were much more likely to choose the larger, delayed reward. Not being able to see the reward made it more abstract and less exciting. This helped the students make a rational choice based on mental calculations, not primal feelings.

This is good news for those who want to delay gratification. Anything you can do to create that distance will make it easier to say no. For example, one study found that just putting a sweet jar inside a desk drawer instead of on top of the desk reduced office workers’ sweet consumption by one third. By putting the sweets away, the constant stimulation of desire is being reduced.

Willpower experiment: wait ten minutes

Ten minutes might not seem like much time to wait for something you want, but neuroscientists have discovered that it makes a big difference in how the brain processes a reward. When immediate gratification comes with a mandatory ten minute delay, the brain treats it like a future reward. The “promise of reward” system is less activated, taking away the powerful biological impulse to choose immediate gratification. When the brain compares a biscuit you have to wait ten minutes for, to a longer term reward, like losing weight, it no longer shows the same lopsided bias toward the sooner reward. It’s the “immediate” in immediate gratification that hijacks your brain and reverses your preferences.

For a cooler, wiser brain, institute a mandatory ten minute wait for any temptation. If, in ten minutes, you still want it (e.g. the doughnut), you can have it. But before the ten minutes are up, bring to mind the competing long term reward (e.g. weight control and better health), that will come with resisting temptation. If possible, create some physical or visual distance as well.

Why is delaying gratification so important?

We may all have been born with the capacity for willpower, allowing us to delay gratification, but some of us use it more than others. People who have better control of their attention, emotions and actions are better off any way you look at it. They are happier and healthier, their relationships are more satisfying and last longer, they make more money and go further in their careers. They are better able to manage stress, deal with conflict and overcome adversity and they even live longer.

The “want it now” culture is at the root of most, if not all societal ills including; excess debt, poor health including obesity, alcoholism, gambling, divorce, depression, anxiety,elevated stress levels and unfulfillment in life and work.

Delaying gratification even enhances the ability of an individual to create wealth for themselves through entrepreneurship.


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